Marxism, Revisionism, Liberalism: A Conversation With Piotr Nowak

We are so very delighted to presented this interesting and wide-ranging conversation with Piotr Nowak, who is Professor of Philosophy at the Bialystok University in Poland. He translated works of such writers as Hannah Arendt, W. H. Auden, Leo Strauss, Alexander Kojève, Allan Bloom, Boris Pasternak, Vasyli Rozanov, Andrei Bely, Pavel Florensky, Jacob Taubes, Semyon Frank. He is the deputy editor‐in‐chief of the philosophical quarterly Kronos (in Polish), and the annual Kronos. Philosophical Journal (in English). He is also a member of the Board of the Count August Cieszkowski Foundation. He is the author of the following monographs: Ontology of Success: An Essay on the Philosophy of Alexandre Kojève (Gdańsk 2006), The Prince’s Signature: Reflections on Strength and Weakness (Warsaw 2013), The Ancients and Shakespeare on Time: Some Remarks on the War of Generations (Amsterdam–New York 2014; in English), Troglodyte Breeding: Comments on Higher Education and the Mental Culture of Contemporary Man (Warsaw 2014), I Die Therefore I Am (Warsaw 2016), The Box with Pandora Within (Warsaw 2016). His most recent book is Violence and Words. Political Philosophy of Hannah Arendt (Warsaw 2018), for which he was awarded the 2019 Daedalus’ Wings Literary Prize founded by the National Library of Poland. He is also the host of two TV programs and a visiting professor at Warsaw University.

In this discussion with Zbigniew Janowski, Professor Nowak provides us with a profound analysis of modernity and the kind of society that we are sleepwalking into, where we have become prisoners of democracy.


Zbigniew Janowski (ZJ): I would like to focus our conversation on the topic of “revisionism.” We know this term from the history of socialism or Communism. Marxist revisionism was an important stage in the life of socialist philosophers, socialism itself, and Communism’s slow demise. It started after the so-called “October Thaw,” in 1956, and continued throughout the 1960s. It was an attempt to “revise” Marxist socialism after Stalin’s death in such a way as to make it look “human.” That is how the famous expression “Socialism with a human face” came about.

It is 2021, Communism is gone. However, over the last 20 or so years, Liberalism has evolved into what is sometimes called “soft-totalitarianism.” To be sure, this is not a system that operates on the basis of broken bones, mass-purges, imprisonment, or the existence of gulags, as socialism did; but, if we leave aside the free-market economy, today’s Liberalism became an ideology which controls as many aspects of human life as Communism, or even more. The first thing is the control of speech and our behavior.

Piotr Nowak (PN): Recently, I have reread the memoirs of Barbara Skarga, entitled, After the Liberation (1944-1956). Skarga, who later became a prominent philosopher in Poland, was an officer in the Home Army during the war. She was captured by the NKVD (Soviet secret police, responsible for purges and murders) when she was 24. She was sentenced to 10 years of hard labor in Siberia. She returned to Poland at a time when former Stalinists were trying to assume a “human face.”

Piotr Nowak. Photo Credit: Bartek Syta.

For years I have been reading Gulag literature with my students, among them Skarga’s book, but also Shalamov, Ginzburg, Herling-Grudziński’s A World Apart. Over time, I noticed a decline of interest in reading these books among students. It is exotic for young people today, but not for me. Unlike them, I know well – fortunately not from personal experience – what the totalitarian regime was like, what Siberia was and what a penal colony in Asiatic Russia was. On the other hand, I know from experience what authoritarianism, martial law, and military rule are. So, I quite dread using the term “totalitarianism” – in a reckless way. In the end, it seems reserved, to paraphrase Karl Jaspers, for liminal situations in history, such as Kołyma or Auschwitz.

At the same time, I accept your important disclaimer that “totalitarianism” (here the quotation marks are indispensable) exists in hard and soft versions. In my mind, the difference seems to be quite significant. Today, political opponents are not murdered in Warsaw and Berlin; rather, they are denied recognition. However, from a certain point of view – and you got me here – it is one and the same thing. Please note that Akaky Akakievich Bashmachkin, the protagonist of Gogol’s The Overcoat, does not die from the cold, from the lack of a coat, but precisely from being denied recognition.

ZJ: Can you explain when and in what circumstances Revisionism under Communism came into being.

PN: It’s hard to say exactly. It was certainly not immediately after Stalin’s death, in 1953, but some three or four years later. In addition to Soviet Marxism, which appeared immediately after the war, the hitherto unknown in Poland, and even more so in the Soviet Union, Marx’s Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844 were discovered. At the same time, such prominent figures of Marxist thought as Gramsci, Lukacs, and later also Ernst Bloch and Theodor W. Adorno, had “arrived” in Poland too. Suddenly, it turned out that there was plenty to choose from; and the stuff was even an interesting read!

Besides, after the war, ideology was important in shaping social practice. If someone shared leftist values, it was difficult for him to question them. We need to remember that at that time the whole world accepted the Manichaean view of reality. This was the case not just in Europe but even in America. Communism was regarded as an angelic regime, maybe a bit degenerated and fallen, but angelic nonetheless. Such a view was partly because of the fact that it largely defeated fascism – undoubtedly the work of Satan. That is how people reasoned after the war all over the world. And this belief is still cultivated in some places in Italy and, above all, at the French universities.

In Poland, leftist sympathies proved to be strong for yet another reason. It is here that the Germans created the hell of Auschwitz. The very name of this place – apart from the association with the terrible suffering of millions of human beings – reminded us of the collapse of the old, pre-war, “fascist” moral order. In a place such as Auschwitz or Warsaw, 90% of which was razed to the ground, the mere thought of moral behavior, of old values, such as, honor, good birth, responsibility for others became questionable, or even impossible. The most important values on which humanity was founded turned out to be fleeting and completely obsolete. Hence, calls for the restitution of the old status quo appeared impossible to the majority of the population. For this reason, it was necessary to fill in the empty space, replace the old values with the new – victorious – ones. And that is what the communists did.

The hunger for meaning was sated quite quickly by giving people hope for a better tomorrow, without poverty and without fascists. This prospect turned out to be tempting and easy to accept, especially by those who were not victims. The joyful May 1st parade (International Workers’ Day), was celebrated each year. Its goal was to suppress the screams of the tortured victims, the slaughtered soldiers of the anti-communist underground, or the tormented Home Army soldiers. It was supposed to drown out the lamentations of the former landowners, robbed and dispossessed of their family estates by the communists. It was a politics of redirecting people’s attention to the radiant – communist – future.

Back then no one wanted to talk about Manichaeism seen from a different angle, that would make you see the face of the devil not only in Fascism, but also in Communism. The Red Army defeated the German Fascists and brought its own understanding of history. History is written by the victor, and the victor was Communism.

The opposition did not come right away; it was only later, around 1957, along with the Khrushchev Thaw. In the literary realm, there was a break too. In 1955, the poet Adam Ważyk wrote, “A Poem for Adults” which describes the madness of the situation, as in the following last two stanzas:

I went home,
like a man who had gone out to buy medicine,
and returned twenty years later.
My wife asked: Where were you?
The children asked: Where were you?
I was silent, trembling like a mouse.

The trouble with “madness” is that madness isolates and cannot become a collective state of mind. While someone can shout on his own behalf that he is crazy, his shouts can’t be repeated in pluralis majestatis, unless the term is used metaphorically, to the tune of: “The whole nation lost its mind to walk hand in hand with the communists.”

There is a book by Jacek Trznadel about the entanglement of Polish intellectuals in Communism, which stands in stark contrast to Miłosz’s The Captive Mind. According to Miłosz, it was the “Hegelian bite” – the intoxication of the great minds with ideology. Trznadel, on the other hand, argues that the mainsprings of ideological commitment and conformist behavior of intellectuals were fear and greed for influence and money, but also the hatred of the “ancien regime.”

As far as Revisionism is concerned, the most important attempt was undertaken, in 1956, by the young Leszek Kolakowski in Światopogląd i życie codzienne (Worldview and Daily Life, and which was published in German under the title, Der Mensch ohne Alternative. Von der Möglichkeit und Unmöglichkeit Marxist zu sein).

ZJ: One could say that post 1956 Revisionism was an attempt to create what came to be called “Socialism with a human face.” If pre 1956 reality was oppressive and brutal (“Stalinist”), it had nothing to do with Marxism; rather, it had everything to do with the actions and decisions of the corrupt State apparatchiks, who distorted Marx’s message. This was a way of absolving Marx’s philosophy of responsibility for the practice of socialism, which found expression in the famous slogan, “Socialism Yes. Distortions No.” After each upheaval, in each communist country, roughly every decade, we had a new Polit-bureau, composed of the new communists who would dispose of the old bastards who were guilty of abuses and responsible for “distortions.” But Marxism, so the argument went, was innocent.

PN: To all those who are able to spot a “human face” in socialism, I have a suggestion – try to find it! Leszek Kołakowski – probably the most outstanding Marxist revisionist of the second half of the twentieth century – ends his essay, Karl Marx and the Classic Definition of Truth, by paraphrasing Thomas Mann: “In the whole universe, man cannot find a well deep enough to not discover, looking into it, his own face down at the bottom.” The thing is, sometimes that face – a human face – happens to be a vulgar mug. Kołakowski writes about it in another essay, The Marxist Roots of Stalinism (republished in his collection of essays, My Correct Views on Everything), which, in my opinion, should be a mandatory reading at contemporary French and American universities.

We were told many times, and some still seem to believe it, that there was nothing Marxist in Stalinism. However, as Kołakowski argues in his essay, even if Stalinism was one of the many incarnations of Marxism, it was a legitimate one. If so, we must assume that even behind the face of a well-bred graduate of the École Normale Supérieure, we may find the face of a butcher.

ZJ: You have mentioned Kolakowski’s influential collection of essays which appeared in England as Marxism and Beyond and, in America as, Toward a Marxist Humanism. I would also add the issue of TriQuarterly: A Leszek Kołakowski Reader, with several essays written in the same period. These books contain most of his important Revisionist writings, which were quite influential among Western Marxists, especially in the UK and North America. Interesting as they are, as part of Marxist historiography, they did not save Marxism. The history of several decades –1960s, 1970s, and 1980s, which led to the collapse of Communism – was to demonstrate that.
Here is something I would like you to comment on – could one say that Revisionism was a failed attempt to breath new life into a world-view that was bound to breed economic inefficiency, oppressiveness, lack of freedom in the private realm and cultural poverty.

PN: Yes, that’s exactly what I was trying to say. It was bound to fail. Communism is a poisoned fruit. A fruit beautiful at times, occasionally even tasty and tempting, but fundamentally poisoned.

ZJ: But only a handful of intellectuals quickly realized that. That is, as you put it, the socialist idea was a poisoned fruit. Here two people, who realized relatively early what it was, stand out – Raymond Aron, the author of The Opium of the Intellectuals, and Czesław Milosz, the author of The Captive Mind. Kołakowski was another, but his realization came a decade later (he was also younger than Aron and Miłosz). You referred to his The Marxist Roots of Stalinism. But there is another important but less known piece by him where he seems to argue that absolving the old Marx by pointing to the “humanist” young Marx will not do. (He wrote this in “Althuser’s Marx,” for The Socialist Register, 1971; reprinted in The Two Eyes of Spinoza and Other Essays on Philosophers). Which is another way of saying, Revisionism was a waste of time.

Over the last five years or so, given what I experienced at American universities, I decided to teach a class on totalitarianism. I would regularly assign Orwell’s 1984. A friend of mine told me, forget about Orwell, make them read Miłosz, it is by far the best analysis of Communism. What Miłosz realized with full force was that Communism required faith to operate successfully. He called it a New Faith. As soon as people lost faith in the possibility of building “a just” (socialist) society, Communism started cracking. One could write a history of Communism through the prism of those cracks: 1956, 1966, 1968, 1970, 1981. The final nail in the coffin came in 1981 – the imposition of martial law in Poland. After that, only a few people retained faith, and eight years later, in 1989, Communism was buried in Eastern Europe. Do you agree with Miłosz that Communism required faith? And if, so, why did so many people – some very intelligent ones, like Kolakowski — “converted” into it? At the beginning of our conversation you answered this question to some extent; historical circumstances after WWII certainly helped.

PN: Different things require different commitment, including faith. Communists believe in a better tomorrow; and therefore they believe in progress. The title of the Czech communist Julius Fucik’s book about a country where “tomorrow is already yesterday” conveys this idea quite well. This faith is contagious even today. The blind rush, headlong, ever onwards, always ends up in a nosedive. This attitude is perfectly reflected in Alfred Kubin’s 1902 painting The Man. It shows a human figure rushing downward from who knows where, going ever faster and faster. The problem is that there is no stopping this motion. As the knowledge of it dawns on her, the terror grows. Left-wing thinkers do not take this into account at all. For them, progress means not only technological advancement, but also a moral one; the improvement of humanity. They are convinced that in order to eradicate evil it is enough to correct poorly functioning social institutions and persistently strive to advocate for justice.

Both the Scriptures and Thomas Hobbes hold a different view: there is an evil in man that resists reforms. Man is terrible; he has done so much evil throughout history that there is no redemption for him in this world. We have to struggle with evil in us. Communism is the embodiment of evil, one of its many forms; perhaps it is the most demonic and bloody of evils. It harnesses beautiful words only to vulgarize and destroy them. Values, such as, hope, love, brotherhood and peace – all of them have fallen prey to the communist practice of vulgarizing them. In their hands, words changed meaning. Peace is a state of war, freedom becomes enslavement, and so on. We find it in Orwell!

As far as Miłosz is concerned, a lot has been written about him. Mark Lilla did a good job adapting him in writing his The Reckless Mind, for use at American universities (incidentally, I helped him with the Polish translation of this interesting book). Miłosz, on the other hand, translated Aron’s The Opium of the Intellectuals back in the 1950s. These are not only bibliographical details. They show how ideas circulated then and how they circulate today, and their mutual influence. Certainly, the problems of Communism did not concern only this part of the European continent.
Kołakowski, on the other hand, interests and inspires me not when he reaches “belief” in a better tomorrow, but when he abandons it and becomes a Christian. You say he was intelligent. Certainly not when he wrote that the Catholic Church was responsible for the death camps (Szkice o filozofii katolickiej [Essays on Catholic Philosophy], p. 57). He acquired wisdom and intelligence with age, especially when he recovered from “the beautiful disease of leftism.”

ZJ: Several points in your explanation as to why Communism was such a powerful force can be applied to Liberalism as well. It is also based on the idea of a better future, equality and justice. Contemporary politics revolves almost exclusively around these two notions. They are the axis of contemporary social policies, and it is there, in my opinion, where the problem of coercive nature of Liberalism lies. To be against “social justice” is to be, very much like the communists saw it, “The enemy of the people,” who deserve no place in society. Not to join the “social justice” crusade is tantamount to displaying anti-social behavior, very much like not participating in a May 1st parade, or in various social activities under Communism, which could get you in trouble. Those who dare to do it are castigated, scorned, looked down upon, eliminated, made to look like social pariahs. Elimination is not a physical one, but a social one; being fired from a job, from a university post, being “accused,” etc. Would you agree?

PN: Today’s Liberalism does not have much in common with classical Liberalism. If Locke and Mill’s Liberalism was conceived in such a way that it could support freedom – not only economic, but also academic, spiritual – then the Liberalism we are dealing with today has become hard-headed, moralizing, and schematic. Classical Liberalism fortified people, while the contemporary one wants to tell them how to live; wants to transform and reform them; bring everyone down to the same level; fashion them into one mould, contrived by who knows whom.

ZJ: By whom? By social activists! It is the fastest growing “profession.” They are experts in raising “social consciousness” about “social justice.” They are the producers of slogans calling on expanding equity and dismantling whatever is left of hierarchy (the so-called “power structure,” as we say in America).

PN: You are probably right. Liberals are not interested in the common good, but, as you say, in “social justice.” The res publica, the State, the nation do not exist in their minds. In consequence, they are nothing but a convenient instrument in the hands of the rich, a bargaining chip for people of influence. Such a weak State can’t make decisions or settle disputes. Conformist behavior is rewarded. Ordinary people are intimidated on a massive scale (“next we come for you”), reprimanded or intimidated. Adults are treated like children.

Are the people who influence and shape reality today still liberals? I don’t know for sure. I know that they dominate and willingly refer to liberal philosophy as a kind of legitimization for their ever-bolder actions. They are followers of progress and infinite improvement, which command people to part with everything they have learned at home, which they have acquired through tradition. Old and worn-down values are replaced by new ones.

ZJ: You ask whether they are liberal? I would say, very much so. If you really want to know, observe the actions (or the silence) of those who claim to be so-called classical liberals. They will say to you (in private), “I don’t agree with this or that; I don’t support this or that policy;” they will even be sincerely appalled by some things the radicals do, but have you seen them vote against the liberal radicals, or raise a voice of protest against the dumbest proposals in local politics, or oppose destructive changes in university curricula? You soon see which side they are on. They invariably support the same policies that the radicals do.

In their outer actions they are as radical as the true radicals; in their hearts they are most likely cowards. They use the term classical Liberalism to find absolution, to distance themselves from the wrongs done by their ideological affiliates. The so-called classical Liberalism exists in their imagination, just like true socialism existed in the heads of those who believed that the socialism in the countries of real socialism had nothing to do with Marx’s socialism.

PN: Those who experienced Communism know that the same thing happened half a century ago and earlier among the communists who created Homo Sovieticus, the new Soviet man, in Central and Eastern Europe. In that sense, Martin Heidegger did not err in equating – as he did in his Letter on Humanism – the degenerated, hurtling rudderless Liberalism with Communism. I remember that back in the time of the communist Polish People’s Republic, when I read this text for the first time, I did not understand this kind of association at all. Today I understand it. Both ideologies adhere to two common values: egalitarianism and the complete economization of community life.

Ford, Soros, and Stalin go along with lesser acolytes through the jungle of the 20th and 21st centuries practically side by side, causing untold catastrophes and destruction. Entire villages and cities disappear from the economic map of their countries. In schools and universities, propaganda centers are created, where courses in tolerance, adaptation, sexual harassment, gender identity and the oppressive nature of the modern family are organized. At other training courses – known once as “the reforging of souls” – you can learn how to eat European meringue and what equality is and why it has become the most important value in all areas of social and political life. Thanks to the newest ideological trends, deeply humanistic values, still so close to Mill, recur as their own caricature, a farce. Because this is how past events come back to us: history – said Marx – always returns as a farce.

ZJ: Historical circumstances – economic crises of the 1920s and 1930s, the rise of Fascism, WWII, and other events – made Socialism attractive to many people. Stalin’s death and the year 1956 made Revisionism necessary, at least for Marxists who wanted to save it. It was an attempt to save Socialism’s face; to make it look human! However, contrary to their hopes, Revisionism was not tolerated for long. Nikita Khrushchev, Stalin’s successor, even insisted that Gomulka, the First Secretary of the Polish Communist Party, organize an international trial of the Revisionists, Kołakowski being the main culprit. In Khrushchev’s mind, or those who advised him, Revisionism was dangerous for the maintenance of power, unity of the Party, but above all, its ideological legitimacy. When Kołakowski was fired from the Party’s ranks and his university post, the official document stated that he “fashioned the minds of the youth with ideology which was contrary to the development of the country.” Whether the communists understood Marx and Kołakowski’s reading of him, is irrelevant; but they suspected that philosophers’ reading of Marx could be dangerous. Insofar as the communist state was based on Marx’s ideas, interpretation of Marx was crucial. It was not just the Communist apparatchiks who were concerned but philosophers such as Jurgen Habermas who supposedly remarked, in the 1970s, that Kołakowski is a disaster for the European Left.

I bring this up to show that reading and interpretation of philosophical texts matters; and it was the reading of Marx which contributed to the demise of Marxist ideology, and people’s loss of faith in the system. Ultimately the system collapsed because the faith in it had been undermined by intellectuals.

As I said, and you seem to agree with me on this point, if Liberalism is becoming, or has become, totalitarian, its eventual demise – if it follows the trajectory of Communism – can be accomplished only if Liberalism finds critics among its own believers, who will come to the inevitable conclusion, as did the Marxist Revisionists, that the system is fundamentally flawed, that “distortions” are not distortions but fundamental features of the ideology. Are there any Liberal Revisionists, not just critics of Liberalism who never claimed to be Liberal? Mark Lilla, whose writings you know, seems to find Liberalism more and more disappointing; but he is far from breaking away from it.

PN: This argument about corrupting the youth is as old as philosophy itself, stretching all the way back to the trial and death of Socrates. We will not come up with anything new here. Politicians will always accuse philosophers of anything and everything, not only corrupting the youth, since they cannot bear the thought of free people, independent from their decisions.

You say that something in Kołakowski’s thought did not sit well with Habermas. That is just fine. There is a problem with German philosophy in general. The thing is that World War II seriously thinned out the Germans; and the Germans killed off the Jews. Meanwhile, for centuries both have provided us with intellectual fuel. War put an end to that. The defeat of the Third Reich has driven all German philosophy to the grave. German philosophy ceased to exist. With one exception – Martin Heidegger, the greatest philosopher of the twentieth century. The French took this opportunity to devise a hokum called postmodernism, talking about which here is a waste of time. We will do well not to refer to either the Germans or the postmodernists in a conversation about Marx, revisionism or Liberalism.

Of course, as everywhere, there are brilliant exceptions. In France, they include – to limit this listing to the living – Rémi Brague, Alain Besançon, who was a gauchist in the 1950s, and Pierre Manent, a French Straussian. That latter said in an interview with Benedicte Delorme-Montini something along the lines of, “if you aspire to understand modern politics, you must have a certain understanding of the United States; therefore you must have a little love for them … A minimum of sympathy and recognition for American achievements is a basic prerequisite of understanding politics even a little bit.” I will add from myself that it is good not only to love and understand them, but also visit and be interested in them.

In my mind the US is entwined – as is the case with of millions of Poles who are Americanophiles – with a childish dream of freedom. Growing up under Communism, we dreamed of the States as if it was Arcadia. Liberalism was also an Arcadian myth for me, a positive myth. In order to be able to revise the ideas on which a political system was founded, one must grow organically in it. Nobody can be a substitute for the British or the Americans in this. The “revisionist” impulse must come from them.
Mark Lilla is not entirely convincing in his writings. At first, I was amazed by his book on intellectuals because it was really well-written. Later, as I read his other books and essays he has written for The New York Review of Books, I realized that he was a literarily gifted opportunist who woke up one day and realized – like everyone in his social circle – that there is no God. Eureka! His The Stillborn God: Religion, Politics, and the Modern West came from such a discovery. I stopped reading him after that book.

Today, when the history of ideas in the West has receded several decades in relation to, for example, the late works of Martin Heidegger, the humanistic thought of the young Kołakowski has a chance for a renaissance. It fits quite well with the anticlerical antipathies of such authors as Mark Lilla, Stephen Greenblatt, Noah Harari, Christopher Hitchens, Giovanni Vattimo, Richard Dawkins, taken in concert with all the Frenchmen who fell out of Alain Badiou’s back pocket. These thinkers, like pack-donkeys, gradually and painstakingly reach the ideas developed by Kołakowski in the 1950s and 1960s, which he abandoned in his further philosophical work, and which brought such dazzling gems as The Presence of Myth or Metaphysical Horror.

ZJ: What was it about Lilla’s book or books that drew your attention? Did you see him as a Liberal Revisionist?

PN: No, Lilla’s books do not have that potential. I only skimmed through the latest ones. They adulate the liberal system in all its pathological layers, and if they undertake criticism, it is a predictable and authorized one. But the Americans had ingenious “revisionists.” They have forgotten about them. I am preparing an issue of Kronos magazine about Allan Bloom. So, I am re-reading his essays, such as those collected in Giants and Dwarfs. I doubt their “revisionist” power is remembered.

ZJ: Unlike Marxism, Liberalism does not seem to have the venerated “founding fathers,” to whose writings we can go back to. Juxtapose young Marx to late Marx; only to realize that the theory was flawed from the beginning. There is no body of writings like the Federalist Papers in the US, the Constitution, which we need to know how to read in order to get politics right. Perhaps that is why there is little chance that Liberalism will collapse the way socialism did because the theory contained in the writings of the founders turned out to be simply wrong.

PN: You have published two volumes of John Stuart Mill’s minor writings. You do not spare him harsh words. You are right. Something went wrong. We need to investigate what happened and when. But, let’s leave it to the Anglos. Personally, I would start by weakening John Rawls’s position in the American humanities. I suggest we should reread Bloom’s critique of Rawls, which he published in 1975, in American Political Science Review (69 [2]). I know of no more convincing criticism of his philosophy.

ZJ: I would disagree with you saying, let’s leave it to the Anglos, for several reasons. Liberal ideology enveloped not just the US, Canada, the UK. It is doing the same in Continental Europe, including the former socialist countries, and parts of Asia, South America. Liberal language of rights, justice and equality is everywhere the same. Rawls and company are not just an American problem; they are a problem for everyone. It does not matter whether a critique of Rawls comes from America or Scotland or England, so long as someone formulates it. There are others who wrote critically about Rawls: Roger Scruton and John Gray. The latter wrote a good book in the early 1990s called, Liberalisms (plural). It is worth rereading today.

Secondly, for critique of Rawls to be effective, one needs to undermine that which underlies Rawls project, that is egalitarianism. His whole theory of justice is based on the premise of the equality of outcome, and unless we go after equality, show how detrimental it is to man’s private life and social organization, we will always have another Rawls, another theory of justice. What is needed is a serious historical work, which shows how the egalitarian world came about. No one who read Peter Laslett’s The World We Have Lost: England Before the Industrial Age (1965) would give credence to Marx and Engels’ philosophy of history. As Laslett shows, in his line-by-line commentary to The Communist Manifesto, it was based on an erroneous interpretation of history. Jonathan Clark is doing similar revisionist work, and everybody who is interested in the subject of Liberalism should read his Revolution and Rebellion and The Language of Liberty.

Be that as it may, here is what I would like to ask: unlike Western Europeans and North Americans who lived through the entire time under the roof of liberal democracy, Eastern Europeans did not; their experience between 1945, the end of WWII, and 1989, the end of Communism, was different. We were inoculated against ideological thinking. Are Poles, for example, better equipped to formulate such arguments and thus can better offer their Western friends a piece of advice?

PN: I do not think so. For this I blame the stupid, naive, childish and probably unrequited love of Poles for the United States. For millions of Poles, Anglo-Liberalism (please do not confuse it with the economic doctrine of Jeffrey Sachs and Leszek Balcerowicz) will always be associated with freedom that was still there in the 1980s.

ZJ: As for my decision to put out Mill’s minor writings, I wanted to find out who is responsible for the social, moral and political chaos today. Not the chaos and demoralization created by socialism, but the chaos in the formerly admired liberal democracies. Mill appeared to me to be the best candidate. As I was preparing my first volume of his writings, I started realizing that he is to Liberalism what Marx is to Socialism. Just like Marx was not the first socialist, nor was Mill the first Liberal. But they both gave full expression to two traditions that existed before them. They codified them and made them into coherent systems.

When you read those minor writings (the second volume is scheduled to appear in the Fall) you no longer see Mill as the serious philosopher (as per, On Liberty, Utilitarianism, or Considerations on Representative Government, but an angry social activist, a propagandist, polemicist, who, like Marx wants to change the world.

What you are struck by is his dislike of the old hierarchical order – the aristocracy, the Anglican Church, religion, the State and, finally, his love of equality. This is what motivated his philosophy of Liberalism. To be sure, he was less radical than Marx and Engels, but his vision of the future of the world is similar: it is a world in which equality reigns supreme. This is what he says on the last two pages of his Utilitarianism, which sounds very much like Marx/Engels’ Communist Manifesto. And equality, like classless society in Marx, is what drives the liberal world today. I consider it to be a dangerous state of mind, which will not stop before it destroys all social institutions. Socialism did it then. Liberalism is doing it now.

PN: You suggested I read Mill, for which I would like to thank you separately. I took his minor writings seriously, and my colleagues in the editorial staff of Kronos magazine found them interesting as well. We decided to translate a considerable portion of them and devote the issue to Mill. I hope that it will contribute to the debate you care so deeply about here, in Poland.

It is true, there is a lot in them about equality – a noble idea in general, which our times have so exaggerated and vulgarized. For example, mentally ill and dysfunctional people are considered not to be different from healthy people. They are “just different.” The result is that we undermine the category of mental health, and thus we can’t cure them. We are not allowed to talk of disease; we use the language of “different sensitivity.” Less and less attention is being paid to crime victims.

At the same time, huge public funds are being committed to the resocialization of criminals, who often see themselves as victims of the social system, unable to take responsibility for what they have done. My daughter wanted to pursue this topic professionally – she graduated from forensic psychology at one of the English universities – but was successfully dissuaded from doing that. There are topics that may not be discussed in today’s academia! And that is utterly unprecedented! Wasn’t that what the right to freedom of expression was about, especially in academic matters? Was it not also postulated by Mill in On Liberty? The same Mill, who called for the liberalization of the law in relation to criminals.

Today the majority has been cornered by the minority. Nay! By numerous minorities who demand the same rights as the majority. Western democracies are on the brink of a civil war.

ZJ: You expressed concerns not just about American universities but also referred to the French ones, the intellectual scene there, and the French romance with Marxism. To be sure, Poles, unlike the French, may not find reading Marxist literature palatable, but in their general outlook, their thinking about the State as a provider of all kinds of goods and services, the power of centralized government, are, in my opinion, not different from that of the French. The Americans too. Whether it is the French egalité or Marx’s classless society, the Poles and other Europeans are true believers in equality. I would even go further: I would say that post-socialist countries may be in a worse situation than the Western European countries because we have had a state-sponsored egalitarian (Marxist) ideology for 45 years. We may have shaken off the Marxist new-speak, but not necessarily the belief in equality which socialism engrained in us. It is what Liberalism is doing now in the countries which by Marxist standards were class societies.
The alternative to equality of any kind and provenance would be a society based on hierarchy, merit, and privilege. All three were the primary object of Mill’s attack. Except for Sir Roger Scruton and Jonathan Clark, I do not know of anyone who would dare to defend it. Say to the Poles that you are a partisan of hierarchy and inequality based on merit, and you are likely to be socially decapitated, just like in the US. I believe you experienced it as well.

PN: I prefer not to talk about personal experiences, which will not teach anyone anything who refuses to understand the problems of the liberal societies we live in. On the other hand, people like us – you and I – understand the danger all too well. All I can say is that we are coming awfully close to communist reality in various fields, where people were destroyed for even being suspected of having views contrary to the existing ideology. Unless we wake up from our progressive dream, totalitarianism will always be with us.

As for your question about the Poles, let me give you an example. Poles have always shed their blood. You know the slogan “For your freedom and ours.” Tadeusz Kosciuszko, the commander of the Polish Army during the 1794 uprising against Russia, was one of the Polish generals who came to America to fight in the war of independence. He designed the defenses of West Point during the revolutionary war, and, later, suggested to Jefferson that Americans establish a military school for officers. There is a monument of Kosciuszko at West Point and on the square in front of the White House. Now he did not go to America because he was a partisan of equality! He just could not bear the thought that there are people who live in bondage. When he was returning to Poland, he left Jefferson his American estate to sell and use all the money from the sale – well over a million dollars in today’s money – to free as many Blacks as possible. I was tempted to find out how many people could be freed for it and it turned out to be about a hundred!

ZJ: Thank you, Professor Nowak, for such an interesting and invigorating conversation.


The featured image shows, “The Fair at Kawaria Zabrzydowska, Poland,” by Wojciech Weiss, painted ca. 1913.

Human Variation And Human Flourishing: A Conversation With Bo Winegard

This month, we are so very pleased to present this interview with Bo Winegard, an evolutionary psychologist and former professor. He was fired from his tenure-track post at Marietta College because of what he researches and what he writes about human biological differences and physical and psychological traits. He is now an independent scholar. He is in conversation with Grégoire Canlorbe, who is well-known to the readers of The Postil.


Grégoire Canlorbe (GC): The “coalitional value theory,” which you helped formulate, asserts that humans evolved unique mental mechanisms for assessing each other’s marginal value to a coalition. Could you tell us more about those mechanisms—and how they intervene in artistic, scientific production?

Bo Winegard (BW): The basic idea is that we evolved some kind of mental system—I’m not sure exactly how this is instantiated in the brain/mind—to assess each other’s value to coalitions. For example, suppose that we form a soccer team. Pretty quickly we would understand who is better (more valuable) at soccer, and who is worse (less valuable). Ceteris paribus, we defer to those who have more coalitional value (e.g., if Messi were on your team, then you would defer to him); and we often assert ourselves over those who have less value.

Bo Winegard

My colleagues and I hypothesized that these mechanisms might partially explain the creation and display of certain cultural artifacts, such as paintings, poems, history books, scientific articles. The idea is that cultural displays signal underlying traits (e.g., intelligence, ambition, education) that generally contribute to a coalition, that make it (the coalition) more formidable and successful. In politics, for example, being able to persuade other people is valuable; it helps a coalition to achieve its goals. Therefore, politicians might signal their value by delivering eloquent speeches. And those in the coalition might respond to such speeches with awe and admiration.

The grand idea, which is not entirely novel, I should say, is that human coalitions are cooperative status-exchange systems. Leaders and other revered coalitional members have high coalitional value; they make the coalition better. And in exchange for their service, members defer to them, giving them priority access to coveted resources, such as food, material wealth, and mates. In this way, the coalition benefits (by having the person high in coalition value) and the high-status person also benefits (by getting priority access to evolutionary relevant resources).

GC: A whole field of investigation lies in sex differences as regards cognition and the relationship to knowledge. What did your long-standing collaboration with Cory Clark allow you to learn in that area?

BW: Ha! I’m not sure I understand the question. I think you are asking what did I learn about sex differences by collaborating for so long with Cory Clark? If so, I will just say a few things. First, Cory is atypical for females, so I would not generalize from my experience with her. And second, I do think that men on average are more tolerant of direct confrontation. My brother and I often get into vehement debates while working on projects, for example. I spare Cory from that because that’s not how our relationship works.

GC: It is sometimes doubted that intellectual manhood (i.e., the ability to think for oneself and to be intellectually innovative and dissident) is substantially correlated with IQ. What is your take on that issue?

BW: I’m not aware of research on this topic. (And it would be arduous to operationalize “think for oneself.” Even creativity is incredibly difficult to operationalize, and I’m not sure I trust much of the research on it.) I do think originality and innovation require a certain minimum level of cognitive ability. However, once one is above that level, I doubt there’s much correlation. I know many brilliant people who are intellectual cowards. In fact, I would contend that American universities are filled with craven professors who are afraid even to voice their true beliefs on a wide variety of taboo topics. I suspect that intellectual cowardice and cognitive ability are completely orthogonal.

GC: It is easily noticed that the greatest military strategists in human history have been, if not bisexual (like Alexander the Great or Julius Caesar), at least misogynist (like Napoléon Bonaparte). Is there a coalitional value theory of that phenomenon?

BW: I’m not sure that I completely understand the question. But I think that some misogyny is likely a result of coalitional value mechanisms. For men’s coalitions, women, on average, simply aren’t as valuable as other men. Consider, for example, a sports’ team. Clearly men are better, on average, than women at sports. Thus men often deride other men who are bad at sports as being effeminate (e.g., “throwing like a girl,” “crying like my sister,” et cetera).

GC: You challenged the idea of a “panhuman nature.” Could you remind us of your argument? Do you also contest, more specifically, the idea of a certain psychological, physical structure invariant across those human populations that are racially European?

BW: The idea behind a panhuman nature is this: Most human-specific traits evolved before the end of the Pleistocene; and, more specifically, most probably evolved before humans expanded across the globe to face novel selection pressures. Therefore, most human psychological traits are shared across populations. There is thus a panhuman nature. I think the concept is useful in some ways but mistaken in others. Think about a different example that is clearer: Dogs. It is the case that one can generalize about a canine nature. Dogs of different breeds share many tendencies. On the other hand, it is wrong or misleading in my view to say there is a pancanine nature in a strong way because dog breeds also vary in behavior proclivities in important and fascinating ways. A Yorkshire Terrier is quite different behaviorally from a Whippet, for example. If you purchased one expecting the behavior of the other, then you might be surprised!

Human groups are not so different from each other as dogs are, obviously. But they are different. And for similar reasons: selection. Of course, dogs were artificially selected and humans were more or less naturally (sexually and socially) selected. And the intensity of selection dogs faced was probably much higher. But humans lived in different environmental conditions from each other for many thousands of years. They faced different selection pressures (probably primarily related to climate). This is phenotypically obvious. People whose immediate ancestors evolved in Sub-Saharan Africa, for example, look different from those whose immediate ancestors evolved in Northern Europe. The most obvious difference is skin color, which is related to the intensity of ultraviolet radiation in such a way that darker skin is associated with more intense radiation. In my view, psychological traits are no different from other physical and anthropometric traits.

Thus groups have slightly different psychological traits from each other. Unfortunately, in the United States at least, this is a very controversial topic—probably more taboo than any other in the social sciences. If groups are different from each other, then some groups might score higher on average on certain socially desired traits such as intelligence and compliance and self-control. And this offends the sensitivities of many progressives, who appear to believe in what I have called “cosmic egalitarianism,” or the notion that all human groups are equal on all socially desired traits.

I think this belief, this cosmic egalitarianism, is no more plausible than Greek mythology or leprechauns at the end of a rainbow. It’s almost impossible to imagine, that is, that human populations are the same on all psychological traits. Now, they aren’t terribly different. So we can make generalization about human nature that apply, I think, to all human populations. But we have to consider group differences, if we want to understand basic social phenomena, such as income and crime disparities between populations, et cetera. Again, it is hard if not impossible to talk about these things honestly in the United States because of the dominance of progressives in the media and academia. But I don’t think it helps anybody to concoct a fantastical fiction about group sameness and to use it to then promulgate the myth that systemic racism is the cause of all group disparities.

As for the second part of your question—again, that depends upon what one means by “invariant psychological structure.” Do I think that European populations differ slightly in traits and propensities? Yes. I think that is quite likely. Do I think that they have fundamentally different psychological structures? No. In a paper, my colleagues and I once compared this to guitars, and I think that’s a good comparison. So guitars are pretty similar to each other. They share a certain structure, if you will. But, there are also subtle differences among them that lead to different tones and tendencies. A Fender sounds slightly different from a Gibson. And an acoustic guitar sounds different from an electric guitar. I think the same holds for human populations, even within Europe.

GC: You covered some of the bias present in politically liberal scientists. What are those? Do you also identify some political bias in hereditarian research about intelligence?

BW: Cosmic egalitarianism. And what we have called “equalitarianism.” Equalitarianism is really a set of biases about group differences. Primarily, liberal scientists repelled by the idea that groups might differ in socially desirable traits in ways that appear to favor white people. At this point, I have no confidence in social science in the United States because of how pervasive this bias is. It’s simply impossible to write about or study topics that are related to race honestly. This is especially true of hereditarianism, because the IQ gap “favors” whites in that whites have a roughly 15-point advantage on average in IQ inside the United States. (The gap appears to be globally consistent, although the exact number depends upon the country, and our data are much more copious inside the United States.) At his point, hereditarianism, or the view that a not insubstantial proportion of the gap is caused by differences in genes, has been removed from mainstream discourse and the academy like a heresy. The orthodoxy simply will not tolerate it, will not debate it, and will not even interact with those who promote it. It has been defeated not by evidence, but by moral bullying—and it is a victim not of falsification but of suppression.

GC: You established yourself as a defender both of “scientism” and of “conservatism.” Yet a common criticism against the view that science (i.e., imaginative hypothesizing corroborated through quantitative, not-trivial empirical predictions) should be solicited to solve all the problems of society is that the limitations of the human mind render science unable to do as well as our cultural traditions, which have been molded—and successfully tested—over several generations of intergroup competition. How do you conciliate science and tradition?

BW: Great question! It’s certainly true that many conservatisms have railed against so-called scientism. But I think that is a mistake. Of course, what follows depends upon one’s definition of scientism. There is certainly a pseudoscientific pretense of knowledge that one should condemn. And there is also a “we trust science” attitude promoted often by progressives in the United States which is mendacious because, of course, they do not trust science that contradicts their sacred values. What I believe is that scientific thinking—skepticism, experimentation, reliance on evidence, et cetera—is the greatest force for generating accurate knowledge in the history of the world. And since I think conservatism is an accurate political philosophy, I think that the insights of science will generally align with the insights of conservative thought. Of course, science will contradict certain particular hypotheses. Maybe, say, the claim that homosexuality is a “chose,” which used to be popular among American conservatives, at least. That is no longer tenable. But the basic idea behind conservatism, namely, that tradition is a good guide to a well-ordered, hierarchal, and cohesive society, is something that will be supported by science. In fact, I’m writing a book on this right now!

Some critics of scientism have argued that it is wrong because science can’t determine values. This is correct, I think, in an academic sense. We could find out, for example, that social policy X would increase human flourishing significantly, and some nihilist could say, “I don’t care. I don’t like human flourishing.” Sure. And science will never show that we should care about human flourishing. But most humans share the intuition that human flourishing is important and should be promoted. Once we have that shared intuition, then we can use science to assess policies. Of course, we should always be humble and recognize that we are incredibly ignorant about many things. That is an important conservative argument.

GC: Some attempts have been made to solve moral issues on the basis of biology and evolutionary psychology. Thus abortion and contraception are deemed permissible on the grounds that birth control—a mere cultural acquisition among humans, but an instinctual predisposition among a large variety of other vertebrate species—comes to implement the “natural law” that is allegedly the demographic adaptation of any population to its environment.

As for homosexuality it is claimed that its recurrence as a genetic trait proves that homosexuals, despite being disadvantaged as concerns their reproductive success, are provided with a number of competitive advantages by reason of which homosexuality should be socially welcomed rather than sanctioned. Likewise premarital sex is justified as fulfilling an alleged hidden function of the sexual intercourse among humans, namely, the function of ensuring—especially throughout pregnancy—the emotional attachment of the male to his female partner and their future progeny. Do you subscribe to such inferences?

BW: On these issues, I do not think evolution (or biology) is informative about what our moral values should be. In general, I think we should promote human flourishing (broadly defined). I don’t think that finding an evolutionary reason for something justifies or condemns it. I’ll give you two examples. It is possible that rape is an adaptive strategy. Not all rape. But the general behavioral predisposition. I certainly don’t think that makes rape morally acceptable. On the other hand, love is an adaptation, and I think love is often (though not always) morally laudable. What is important is the trait or behavior’s relation to social cohesion and human flourishing, not its evolutionary or genetic logic.

GC: You proposed an evolutionary approach to “tribalism in human nature.” How would you sum up your insights? How do you account for the ability of human individuals (to a varying degree) to identify to groups extending beyond the level of ethnical, biological bonds—from multiracial nations and multiethnic religions to humanity taken as a whole?

BW: To be clear, there was nothing particularly unique in that approach! But the basic idea is this: Humans evolved in the context of competing coalitions and therefore evolved traits and proclivities that facilitate tribalism. They create tribes, favor members of their own tribe, and see other tribes as potential competitors. The first and most primitive tribe is the family, for straightforward reasons of kin selection. But humans collaborate with non-kin as well.

My best guess is that ethnic affinity is a byproduct of a kin-recognition system. Humans recognize kin via certain cues. One such cue might be maternal perinatal association. Another is probably phenotypic similarity to the self or to other close kin. Experiments have found, for example, that people trust putative others in photographs that have been manipulated to look like the self more than others in non-manipulated photographs. Individuals in the same ethnic group on average look more similar to each other than individuals from different ethnic groups. Others have argued that ethnic affinity is a byproduct of tribal recognition system. I suppose it doesn’t really matter for the purposes of this question. What does matter is that humans do evince ethnic affinity. But they can of course transcend such affinities, creating large tribes called “nations” that are multi-ethnic.

They do this mostly by inculcating norms of inclusion and tolerance and creating shared symbols (flag, national anthem). But it is worth noting that even within nations, ethnic groups often compete with each other. Ethnic diversity, in other words, often creates tension; and it appears to decrease social trust. This does not mean it is necessarily bad (or good). It’s simply a statement of empirical fact. So, it is true that humans can create large tribes that include many strangers and members of diverse ethnic groups; but those tribes are often inflicted by at least low-level tribal competition and tension.

GC: Thank you for your time. Would you like to add a thing or two?

BW: The thing that I think is most important is to promote free, judicious debate about all scientifically interesting topics, at least in academia. And we are losing that audacious spirit of the pursuit of truth, replacing it with a timid spirit of obsequiousness. But the truth should not be feared. And our pursuit of it should be non-negotiable in the sciences. I’m not suggesting that we should say every thought or idea that pops in our head because we think it is true. But I am saying that we should explore every reasonable theory about the empirical world. And today that is simple not happening.


The featured image shows “Battle of San Romano,” by Paolo Uccello, painted ca. 1436-1440.

Napoleon: Dictator, Or Political Visionary? An Interview With Thierry Lentz

In this “Year of Napoleon,” we are highly honored to present this exclusive interview with Thierry Lentz, who is the foremost authority on Napoleon Bonaparte. He has written over sixty books on the Consulate period as well as the First French Empire. He is the current director of the Fondation Napoléon, and a Professor at the Institut catholique de Vendée.

On the occasion of the bicentenary of Napoleon’s death (May 5, 1821), Professor Lentz is interviewed by Arnaud Imatz, on behalf of the Postil.


Arnaud Imatz (AI): 2021 is the year of the bicentenary of Napoleon’s death at Longwood on the island of Saint Helena, May 5, 1821. The historical figure of the Emperor of the French (although it might be more appropriate to say the “historical figures” of the Emperor) has inspired in the world, and not only in France, an infinity of novels, historical works, films (more than a thousand) and pictorial or musical works. The two legends of Napoleon, black and golden, are now firmly established. But why does Napoleon still remain so much in our memories?

Thierry Lentz.

Thierry Lentz (TL): Napoleon is present in our memories for all the reasons you have just mentioned. He occupies a very special place in French history and memory. But beyond that, he is also linked to our daily life and our habits. Our state still resembles the one he created, our institutions are his and, above all, our daily life is influenced by the Civil Code. Even though this Code has undergone multiple reforms, necessary to adapt to new times and mores, its framework is still the same. It influences our daily lives and even what happens after we die through inheritance law. We are thus aware of the importance of Napoleon in our history… without always remembering that he is indeed there, in our present.

AI: In 1815, the 15-year adventure ended in disaster; the black legend certainly seemed to have definitely won. Napoleon “the warmonger” deserved nothing but ignorance and oblivion. However, the situation did quickly change. How and why did he become the hero of the 19th century liberal romantics against monarchists and traditionalists?

TL: The defeat at Waterloo, and the Treaty of Paris of November 1815, were indeed a catastrophe for France: it was occupied for three years and had to pay a formidable war indemnity. As a result, the image of Napoleon was tarnished; and we can say that it is then that the black legend triumphed. Even his death, announced in Europe in July 1821, went almost unnoticed. The displays of mourning were sporadic.

It was two years later, with the publication of The Memorial of Saint Helena by Emmanuel de Las Cases, that things started to turn around. As Lamartine came to observe, while France was bored, and Charles X passed away as the restorer of the Ancien Régime, that the image of Napoleon, presented as liberal by the Memorial, “recovered” and came to permeate both the arts and politics. The accumulation of references created a somewhat imaginary Napoleon; at the same time as the struggle to maintain the achievements of 1789 was once again becoming a reality. We put the emperor at the head of these struggles.

AI: Should we consider Napoleon as the continuator of the French Revolution, or as its “channeler,” if not its gravedigger? Did he want to conquer Europe in the name of a kind of revolutionary internationalism, or did he paradoxically contribute, by his invasions, to the creation of European nations? Was his ambition to disseminate ideas, relating to the rights of peoples, the defense of civil equality, the “intangible principles” of the Revolution? Or was he quite simply the continuator of Louis XIV, the bearer of the hegemonic aims of France, which then wanted to be dominant in the world as Spain had once been and as England and Germany would be or wanted to be, not to speak of the United States, Russia and China?

TL: Napoleon was undoubtedly the stabilizer of the Revolution, in his own version of 1789. He was certainly not a liberal in politics. But in social matters, he established civil equality, the right to property, the non-confessionality of the state and civil liberty (which is therefore not political). At a time when the country aspired to restore order and enjoy the achievements, he was the right man on the inside. In 1802, he had already accomplished much of the task: the great reforms were launched and civil peace returned.

Outside of France, things were a bit different. He was indeed the continuator of the diplomacy of the Ancien Régime and of the Revolution, halfway between seeking to impose French dominance in Europe and intending to spread the revolutionary principles (of 1789) in Europe. This is why the evaluation of his work outside France is so difficult. This was his main failure. While there is nothing left of the “Great Empire,” a great deal of its political and social accomplishments yet remain in France and in Europe.

AI: Why was the French military superior to others at that time?

TL: The French military benefited from its modernization throughout the Revolution, mainly in terms of manpower through conscription. They were now fighting for ideas and every citizen was invited to participate. Napoleon reorganized everything again—his army corps, the doctrine of the employment of cavalry and artillery, the excellence of command, and the amalgamation of old troops and conscripts. He also benefited from the concentration of the army at Boulogne, where for two and a half years, the soldiers lived together and trained, while awaiting the hypothetical invasion of England.

This army would long remain the best in the world and would show this excellence in the campaigns from 1805 to 1807. It was finally led by a true military genius, with a unique eye and quick decision-making. Things did turn sour afterwards, with the war in Spain, which devoured ground-troops, prevented amalgamation and demonstrated that this Grand Army was not invincible.

AI: Until 1795, France had the third largest population in the world, behind only China and India. Isn’t this the major explanatory factor for the Napoleonic conquests, rather than the merits and faults of the emperor?

TL: Regarding French military losses, which were poorly understood, it was not until the 1970s to have scientifically established figures. They are essentially derived from the work of demographer-historian Jacques Houdaille. Making use of large-scale scientific surveys in the extensive records, he estimated that there were about 450,000 men killed in action and about as many deaths from injury or illness, along with a few tens of thousands of the “missing.” It can be assumed that the actual losses are in the range of 900,000 to 1 million fatalities.

As for the allies and enemies of France, they suffered, it is often said, but without knowing how to prove it, losses that were “slightly higher” than those of the Grande Armée. If we adopt this principle, the wars of the Empire cost Europe from 2 to 2.5 million men over ten years. While this death toll is significant, it is still lower than in many previous and subsequent wars.

What is more, Europe was not drained of blood at the end of the period, neither economically nor demographically. There was no systematic destruction of towns and villages, and even less of the means of production, except in the Iberian Peninsula where the responsibility was largely shared between French and English troops.

Regarding demography, specialists have shown that France had nearly 1.5 million more inhabitants in 1815 than in 1790. For the whole of Europe, population growth was greater for the 1790-1816 period to what it had been from 1740 to the Revolution. These results are of course due to advances in medicine and the decline in infant mortality. But this general finding will no doubt surprise more than one.

AI: Politically, was Napoleon a “classic” dictator, in the Roman sense, or a totalitarian dictator in the modern sense? Do you consider that despite his mistakes, especially in the choice of ministers, often traitors and incompetents, he remained an exceptional leader or even a political visionary?

TL: It goes without saying that from 1799 to 1815, Napoleon spent every minute strengthening and defending the reign of the executive, even if it meant showing himself to be more and more authoritarian. But to speak of a dictatorship and, moreover, of a military dictatorship, is to make fun of history and the meaning of words.

According to the jurist and political scientist Maurice Duverger—who has devoted a good part of his work to the concept of dictatorship—three simultaneous conditions are necessary to characterize it: 1) that the regime be installed and maintained by force, in particular military; 2) that it be arbitrary, that is to say that it suppresses freedoms and controls the decisions of arbitral or judicial bodies; 3) that it be considered illegitimate by a large part of the citizens. The study of each of these points for the Napoleonic regime leads to the rejection of any such peremptory conclusion. Under Napoleon, the establishment of a strong and embodied state was not accompanied by the systematic use of illegitimate coercion or indiscriminate force, much less for the benefit of the army.

AI: In economics, was Napoleon an interventionist or a liberal?

TL: In economic matters, Napoleon was more of a “liberal.” For him, the state did not have to intervene in the day-to-day economy, except for foreign trade which was carried out “for the grandeur of the state.” It was also important to him that the social situation be as stable as possible; and that is why he was able to intervene with public orders at the time of the crises, in particular that of 1810, which was extremely serious.

AI: Is he the “father” of the modern French state?

TL: Napoleon put an end to the trial-and-error approach when it came to the organization of the state and its administration. He simplified the grid into a pyramid model, at the top of which was the executive, not always himself in person, but those who represented the government, such as ministers. This has been called the “French model,” moreover adopted by most European states, with adaptations, even among its enemies.

AI: In his will Napoleon declared himself belonging to the Catholic religion. Can the leader of an army of soldiers from the Revolution, whose members were seen as dechristianizers in most countries of Europe, be presented as a Catholic? Wasn’t his Catholicism more of interest than conviction?

TL: We will never know whether Napoleon believed in God or not. What is certain is that he saw religions, especially the Catholic religion, as an intermediary body that should contribute to social stability and public order. This is why he “reestablished” Catholicism, organized Protestantism and Judaism, leaving them a certain dogmatic freedom, but subjecting them to the law of the state.

AI: What is the difference between the non-denominational Napoleonic state and the tradition of French republican secularism that prevailed from 1880 onwards, under the Third Republic?

TL: The Napoleonic non-confessionality, established in principle by the Civil Code, is a first step towards secularism. It proclaims that the various churches are subject to the state and to the law. But with Napoleon, this is expressed through concrete measures: public and civil status, acceptance of divorce, submission of faiths to the laws governing public order. He had no ambition to intervene in beliefs; but on the other hand, he left nothing to be organized outside of social and political necessities.

AI: Freemasonry lived fifteen extraordinary years under Napoleon, multiplying the number of lodges which went from 300 to 1220. Napoleon had many Freemasons in his family (including Jérôme, Louis and Joseph, whom the Spaniards nicknamed Pepe Botella); 14 of the first 18 marshals were Freemasons, as were a number of generals and most of the great dignitaries of the Empire. What was his relationship to Freemasonry? Was he himself a Freemason?

TL: Even if he himself was not (there is no proof of a supposed initiation in Egypt), Napoleon was surrounded by initiates such as his brothers, as well as Cambacérès, Lebrun, Fouché, Talleyrand, etc. In his Masonic policy, he relied above all on Cambaceres, who appeared to be the “protector” of the Order.

Initiated in 1781 in a lodge in Montpellier, Cambaceres climbed all the ranks and took this commitment very seriously, including at the time of the revolutionary interdicts. He then helped his friend Alexandre-Louis Roëttiers de Montaleau, grand master of the Grand Orient, to “rekindle fires” within the Directory. He thus participated in the first ranks in the meeting of June 22, 1799 by which, in the presence of five hundred masons, the Grand Lodge merged into the Grand Orient.

From that moment, French Freemasonry had almost regained its unity, further supplemented by the addition of the Grand Chapter of Arras to the Grand Orient, on December 27, 1801. It was not affected by the creation of a Scottish lodge, in 1803, an experiment immediately stopped by a new act of union signed a few days after the Imperial Coronation.

This unification of December 5, 1804, sometimes qualified as a “Masonic concordat,” confirmed the primacy of the Grand Orient which, in exchange, admitted the maintenance of several rites within it. Napoleon would have liked Freemasonry to constitute an intermediary body supporting the regime. But it was too plural for that; it crossed too many parties to be able to be a real support. It was never that, and continued its existence without problem under other regimes.

AI: It has often been suggested that after his military expedition to Egypt (1798 – 1799), Napoleon Bonaparte professed great sympathy for Islam? Was he sincere?

TL: Napoleon studied Muhammad, especially through the works of Voltaire. He admired his determined and almost warlike aspect. His sympathy for Islam hardly went beyond that. He did not convert, nor was he inspired by it for the Civil Code, as we can sometimes read on websites that are sympathetic to the Muslim Brotherhood.

AI: Almost all European people had a place in the Grand Army (Dutch, Saxons, Germans, Poles, Spaniards, Portuguese, Italians, Belgians, Austrians, Bavarians, Swiss, etc..). Allied strengths even made up between 20% to 48% of the total force, depending on the campaign, but only the Poles remained loyal to the end. How do you explain that?

TL: It has been said, and we have come to believe, that it was out of pure personal ambition that Napoleon made war. But this forgets that, at that time, peace was a state of emergency and that all states were primarily concerned with preparing for inevitable conflict. This is also forgets that history and geopolitics often made it inevitable. I have written dozens of pages on this subject to which I refer interested readers. I will just repeat here that Europe was not simply divided into two camps during the Napoleonic episode; otherwise, it would not have been until the fall of 1813 that a general coalition was formed against France.

Before that, the continental powers had come to terms with French dominance and tried to make as much profit as possible for themselves. It was the great success of British diplomacy to succeed in uniting all of Europe around its lowest common denominator (bringing down France and its leader), by playing on resentments and unfulfilled promises to some, and to others, on the economy and finances—much more than on the principle of a “liberation” of the Continent. This explains why many foreign contingents were placed at the disposal of the Grande Armée for nearly fifteen years, most often with the consent of their sovereigns.

AI: The controversies surrounding the figure of Napoleon have redoubled in virulence on the eve of the celebration of the bicentenary of his death. The exaltation of heroism and the spirit of sacrifice have now largely given way to victimist and navel-gazing ideology. On the other hand, the wave of political correctness and the nihilistic modes embodied in the woke spirit or the cancel culture originating in North America seem irresistible. As a result, the vast majority of the media see Napoleon only as a tyrant, an instigator of war, a misogynist, a supporter of patriarchy, a slaver (for having reestablished slavery eight years after its suppression and imprisoned Toussaint Louverture, a black separatist, who had been appointed general under the Directory). How do you answer these charges?

TL: I answer them at length in the book I just published, Pour Napoléon (For Napoleon). I think we are at an important time in the fight against the trends that you describe.

Our rulers are paralyzed by groups which have made a specialty of amalgams and historical untruths to impose their “agenda,” and to accuse their country of having “murdered” entire categories, and then defiling public places or calling for action and riot?

Nothing was done either to prevent or to combat the iconoclastic fever that came from the United States, after the tragic death of George Floyd. Even though we sometimes think that the famous “submission,” nicely denounced by Michel Houellebecq, is a bit tricky, it is all the same the first word that comes to mind.

If one believes Montesquieu’s warning that “oppression always begins with sleep,” one can only be frightened to see those we mandate to preserve national cohesion and unity sleeping soundly—or pretending to sleep so as not to see anything, which in the end comes to the same. As a historian and as a citizen, I thought that I could not remain inert in the face of this danger.

AI: Monsieur Lentz, thank you for this delightful conversation.


The featured image shows, “Napoleon I, crowned by the Allegory of Time, writes the Code Civil,” by Jean-Baptiste Mauzaisse, painted in 1833.


The featured image shows a portrait of Napoleon by Andrea Appiani, painted in 1805.

Christian Slavery Under Islam: A Conversation With Darío Fernández-Morera

This month, we are greatly pleased to present this interview with Darío Fernández-Morera, Associate Professor Emeritus of Northwestern University. He has a B.A. from Stanford, an M.A. from the University of Pennsylvania, and a Ph.D. from Harvard. He has served in the United States National Council for the Humanities.

His research and teaching include, among other subjects, Golden Age and Medieval Spanish literature, culture and history. He has published several books and editions and many articles and reviews in English, Spanish and French on cultural, historical, theoretical and methodological issues in Spain, Europe, Latin America and the United States, including the encounter between Europeans and Amerindians, Cervantes, Garcilaso de la Vega, Fray Luis de León, Inca Garcilaso, Vicente Aleixandre, Islamic Spain, and Modernism.

Darío Fernández-Morera with Koban.

He has published in, and served as consultant and reader for, History of European Ideas, The European Legacy, Le Figaro Histoire, Symposium, Hispanic Review, The United States National Endowment for the Humanities, Canadian Review of Comparative Literature, Revista Canadiense de Estudios Hispánicos, Comparative Civilizations Review, Comparative Literature Studies, Modern Age, MLN, Bulletin of Hispanic Studies, etc.

Among his publications are The Myth of the Andalusian Paradise: Muslims, Christians and Jews under Islamic Rule in Medieval Spain, now translated into French as Chrétiens, Juifs et Musulmans dans al-Andalus: Mythes et Réalités de l’Espagne Islamique, with a Prologue by French Philosopher, Arabist, Hellenist and Hebraist, Rémi Brague, and into Spanish as El Mito del Paraiso Andalusí: Musulmanes, Cristianos y Judíos bajo el Dominio Islámico en la España Medieval; American Academia and the Survival of Marxist Ideas; The Lyre and the Oaten Flute: Garcilaso and the Pastoral; Fray Luis: Poesía (ed); Europe and its Encounter with the Amerindians (ed.); Cervantes in the English Speaking World (ed. with M. Hanke); Cervantes y su mundo (ed. with K. Reichenberger); Cervantes y su mundo II (ed. with E. and K Reichenberger et al).

He is the recipient of the 2008 award for Graduate Teaching Excellence from the Northwestern University School of Continuing Studies. He has served as Director of Undergraduate Studies in the Department of Spanish and Portuguese. He likes animals, especially dogs, plants, and the sea.

He is in conversation with Father Seán Connolly, in which he gives a thorough analysis of a little-known part of history, namely, the plight of European slaves in Islamic lands.


Father Seán Connolly (Fr.SC): What was the ultimate purpose of the early Islamic conquests?

Darío Fernández-Morera (DFM): Applied sharia (fiqh) required that infidels who did not submit peacefully to Islam should be fought and prisoners enslaved. As experts in Islamic Law, such as Felipe Maíllo Salgado (University of Salamanca) explain, and Medieval Islamic treatises and chronicles attest, religion was fundamental. They also make clear that jihad was understood as a struggle to make the world submit, not as some “spiritual” struggle to become “a better person.”

This religious foundation is evident in the answer given by Muslim authorities to the Americans before the “Barbary Wars” (1801-05, 1815), fought by the United States to try to end North African Muslim raids on American and European ships:

We took the liberty to make some inquiries concerning the Grounds of their pretentions to make war upon Nations who had done them no Injury, and observed that we considered all mankind as our friends who had done us no wrong, nor had given us any provocation. The Ambassador [of Tunis] answered us that it was founded on the Laws of their Prophet, that it was written in their Koran, that all nations who should not have acknowledged their authority were sinners, that it was their right and duty to make war upon them wherever they could be found, and to make slaves of all they could take as Prisoners, and that every Musselman [sic] who should be slain in battle was sure to go to Paradise. (Letter of American Commissioners to John Jay, 28 March 1786).

Christians enslaved Muslims, but unlike the case of Islam’s religious texts, the Gospels have no analogous injunctions against non-Christians. Nor was the enslavement of Muslims comparable. As historian Robert C. Davis shows in Christian Slaves, Muslim Masters: White Slavery in the Mediterranean, the Barbary Coast and Italy, 1500-1800, entire European coastal areas and towns were depopulated by Muslim raids. We have no comparable record of depopulation in Muslim lands. As you point out, so vast was the enslavement of Christians, that not one but two monastic orders dedicated themselves to their rescue.

Fr.SC: Detail the dominance of Islamic armies in the Mediterranean region between the 8th and the 19th centuries.

DFM: These attacks, and the enslavement of Christians, should be contextualized within much more encompassing jihads to make the world submit. Islam ended the enclaves of Jews and Christians in Arabia. The larger offensive against Christianity started with the unprovoked jihad against the Christian Greek Roman Empire (misnamed “Byzantine”: its inhabitants called themselves Romans; its enemies called them Romans—Rum, as do Muslim texts–and Europeans called them Greeks to avoid calling them Romans because Europe now had its own “Holy Roman Empire,” started by Charlemagne; nobody called them “Byzantines,” a name invented by a Protestant scholar in the sixteenth century and adopted by academics since).

This jihad wrestled from Christianity the Holy Land, Syria, North Africa, Anatolia (today’s Turkey), Armenia, and Greece. Only Greece and Armenia eventually escaped Islamic control.

This jihad began with the victory over the Christians at Yarmuk (636). It continued until the Christian defeat at Manzikert (1071). Manzikert opened the Christian Anatolian peninsula to the Muslim Turks. It prompted the Greek Roman Emperor Alexius I Comnenos to ask Europe for help. Pope Urban II gave him this help by organizing the First Crusade. Against terrible odds, the crusaders recovered the Holy Land, though only from 1099 to 1291. The Islamic assault against what remained of the Christian Greek Roman Empire culminated with the Fall of Constantinople (1453). Turkish dictator Ataturk, architect of the Armenian Christians’ genocide, changed Constantinople’s name (Κωνσταντινούπολις “the city of [Emperor] Constantine”) to “Istanbul” to erase its Greek and Christian origin.
Islam conquered Zoroastrian Persia (today’s Iran) in the seventh century, ending Zoroastrian rule.

Muslim armies, made up largely of North African Berbers recently forced to convert, crossed the strait named Pillars of Hercules (changed by Muslims to Jebel-al-Tariq, hence Gibraltar, to celebrate their commander Tariq) and conquered three quarters of Christian Spain (711-719). Christians from the North gradually fought back (the Spanish Reconquista), and after their victory at the big battle of Navas de Tolosa (16 July 1212) recovered most of the land, except for the small kingdom of Granada, which fell in 1492.

For centuries, the Spanish Catholic Church celebrated Navas de Tolosa as the day of the Triunfo de la Santa Cruz because Christians saw a cross in the sky, and a banner with the cross, carried by a Canon on horseback before the archbishop of Toledo, Jiménez de Rada (who fought on horseback alongside the Christian soldiers), led the Christians to victory without suffering damage. Navas de Tolosa was the culmination of a Crusade blessed by Pope Innocent III (d. 1216). The celebration has disappeared from the Catholic calendar.

Under Turkish leadership, Islam conquered the Christian Balkans and much of Christian Eastern Europe, and then moved against Central Europe. These attacks culminated with the sieges of Vienna in 1529 (Spanish and German troops saved Vienna) and 1683 (by September 11 Vienna was about to fall, but Vienna and probably Europe were saved on the morning of September 12 by the arrival of Catholic Polish king Jan Sobieski III with his Winged Hussars, who crushed the Turks).

All these attacks produced millions of captives, not counting the centuries of attacks against the coasts and ships of Europe–which reached as far as Iceland–or the massive enslavement of Slavs in Eastern Europe by Islamized Mongols and Tatars. In 846 Arabs even sacked the St. Peter and Paul Basilicas’ treasures and relics (Pope Sergius II fled behind the Aurelian walls; his successor Leo IV built the Vatican walls). Turks sacked Otranto (1480), enslaved thousands, and beheaded 800 who refused to convert (the Martyrs of Otranto); they conquered Cyprus (1570), beheaded the commander of Nicosia, deceived and skinned alive the commander of Famagusta, Marcantonio Bragadino, and enslaved Nicosia and Famagusta’s Greek population. Historian of slavery Olivier Pétré-Grenouilleau (Sciences Po, Paris) estimates that the Islamic enslavement of whites far surpasses the transatlantic trade in black slaves (Les traites négrières).

One victim of the raids in the Mediterranean was Miguel de Cervantes, who was captured and enslaved in Algiers for five years. The Trinitarians ransomed him. He later became a Franciscan Lay Brother, but he asked to be buried at the Convent of the Barefoot Trinitarians in Madrid. Islam impacted Cervantes’s life even earlier: he fought at the crucial Battle of Lepanto (Greek, Naupaktos) on October 7, 1571, off the coast of Greece. At Lepanto, a Christian fleet of Spanish, Venetian, Genoese, Papal, and other Italian ships, organized by Pope Saint Pius V, and commanded by John of Austria, half-brother of King Philip II, defeated a larger Turkish fleet and checked the Islamic advance in the Mediterranean. Fifteen thousand Christian slaves rowing in the Muslim ships were freed. Though ill, Cervantes asked to be placed at the most dangerous part of the ship, and was shot three times. He recovered, but lost the use of his left hand—“for the greater glory of his right one,” as the Spanish saying goes.

October 7th was celebrated by the Catholic Church as the day of Our Lady of Victory, because Saint Pius V instructed all Christian fighters to pray the Rosary before the battle. The day is now called Our Lady of the Rosary. The great banner of the Turkish admiral, decorated with the image of Muhammad’s scimitar, and the name of Allah stitched in gold 29,800 times, was captured and kept for years near the tomb of Saint Pius V at the Church of Santa Maria Maggiore. In 1965 Pope Paul VI gave it to the Turks as a gesture of good will.

Islam attacked China from 651 to 751. Most of China remained unconquered. But the outer regions of the Chinese empire fell. Today’s Kazaks, Uzbeks, Uyghurs, among others, are Muslims. These areas were once Buddhist, Hindu (as was Afghanistan) and even Christian.

Tatars invaded Christian Russia, exacting gold and slaves. After the big Battle of Kulikovo (1380) against the by then Islamized Tatars, Russians gradually reconquered their land.

Islam’s conquest of Hindu lands was brutal. Historian Will Durant wrote: “The Islamic conquest of India is probably the bloodiest story in history” (The Story of Civilization: Our Oriental History). So massive was the export of slaves from India through the mountains, that they were named Hindu Kush, which according to Muslim traveler Ibn Battuta (d. 1368/69) means “Killer of Hindus” in Persian, because of the vast number of Hindus who died from cold and hardships while transported. Pakistan was once Hindu and Buddhist, with some Christians as well.

Such was the impact of Christian slaves on Islamic lands, that many of the Umayyad rulers of Islamic Spain, as the sons of sexual slaves, were blue-eyed and blond or red-haired; and the founder of the “Arabic” Nasrid dynasty of Granada was called al-Hamar, “the Red One,” because of his reddish hair and beard. Tenth century Muslim geographer Ibn Hawqal writes that one of the main exports of Islamic Spain was slaves, and that “most of the white eunuchs of the world come from Spain.” Arabist Celia del Moral observes that in Umayyad al-Andalus the most coveted and therefore expensive sexual slaves were blond and red-haired females from the Northern Christian regions (see, The Myth of the Andalusian Paradise).

Fr.SC: How large scale was the enslavement of sub-Saharan (“black”) Africans during this period?

DFM: Bernard Lugan, Africanist at the University of Lyon III, observes that the slavery of black Africans was initially a trade among black Africans, and that all peoples have practiced slavery, but only the white Europeans abolished it first (Esclavage, l’histoire à l’endroit). This is also noticed by the Benin Professor Abiola Felix Iroko.

Arab merchants were the principal intermediaries in this trade, and they conducted raids to capture black Africans. (See, Ghanan professor John Allenbillah Azumah’s The Legacy of Arab Islam in Africa). Islamic countries did not abolish slavery until recently. Turkey abolished the trade in black (Zanj) and white (Circassian) females in 1908. Kuwait abolished slavery in 1949, Qatar in 1952, Niger in 1960, Saudi Arabia in 1962. In some countries, slavery continues, unofficially.

It was the European colonizers of North Africa in the nineteenth century who not only finally ended the enslaving of white Europeans, but also officially ended the enslavement of sub-Saharan Africans by black Africans and Muslims. This ignored aspect of colonialism is underlined not only by Lugan, but also by Ivorian intellectual Ernst Tigori.

Fr.SC: Would you agree that little attention has been given to this in the teaching of history? Why do you think this is?

DFM: Yes. I want to point out that although traveling on donkeys rather than horses, characteristic of the Trinitarians, may be attributed to humility, another possibility is that in Islamic lands, where the friars went to help the Christian slaves, Christians were forbidden to ride horses. Nor could the Trinitarians have worn their blue and red crosses in Islamic lands. Islamic law considered offensive and even blasphemous and therefore forbade the display of crosses in public, even on the outside walls or on top of churches. They could be shown only inside churches. Moreover, churches could not be allowed in the main parts of a city, only on the outskirts; and they could not be taller or more beautiful than Muslim buildings.

Why all this is not taught in schools, or even discussed amply in academia, is the result of many factors. I will mention only one: “stake-holders” interests. Many academics who write and teach about Islam do not want to present their subject, which they love and is the bread and butter on which they publish, under such unfavorable light; and they will fight tooth and nail anyone who does. Prestigious Western universities and Islamic Studies programs receive large donations from Islamic countries. Academics do not want to jeopardize their careers, and even traveling to Islamic lands, by highlighting the issues examined here; and those who write about slavery do not wish to contextualize their condemnations of black slavery in the Americas by highlighting its centuries of existence before and after 1619 among black Africans and Muslims, or by mentioning the millions of whites enslaved by Islam through the centuries.


The featured images shows, “The Slave Market, Constantinople,” by William Allan, painted in 1838.

Education As Provocation: A Conversation With Konrad Paul Liessmann

This month, we are so very pleased to have a conversation with Professor Konrad Paul Liessmann, the renowned Austrian philosopher, essayist, and cultural critic at the University of Vienna.

The Postil (TP): Welcome, Professor Liessmann, to the Postil. It is a great pleasure to have you with us. Recently, your book, Bildung als Provokation (Education as Provocation) was translated into French as La haine de la culture. Pourquoi les démocraties ont besoin de citoyens cultivés (Hatred of Culture: Why Democracies Need Educated Citizens). The difference between the two titles is interesting. Could you speak to this difference? Is there a connection between education today and a “hatred of culture?”

Konrad Paul Liessmann. Photo Credit: Heribert Corn.

Konrad Paul Liessmann (KPL): There is this connection. Culture, in the sense of the great works of world literature, music and the visual arts, was banned from education. The only thing that now counts in education, therefore, is competencies; dealing with the great documents of culture is hardly relevant anymore. This is also the result of a “hatred of culture,” an attitude that wants to make it easy for everyone and denounces as elitist any argument that requires concentration, knowledge and effort. That doesn’t mean that this culture should be adopted uncritically; but without this culture all education is empty.

TP: How do you understand culture?” Do you think we have lost culture?

KPL: Of course, there are the most varied of provisions of culture. One can start from a concept of culture that turns everything into culture that people somehow do regularly, ritualized and in a formed way—in this sense one can speak of a culture of beer drinking as well as a culture of war. But one could also start from a narrow concept of culture that only accepts those forms of culture in which that tendency towards reflexivity and aestheticization has become independent. That could best be called “art.” Indeed, no one wants to reduce culture to art anymore. One would rather “expand” the concept of art and allow it to coincide with the expanded concept of culture. However, it was only the elitist concept of culture that was limited to artistic activity and associated with an exquisite quality standard that made it attractive for its expansion. The fact that even the stupidest TV show wants to be culture only makes sense if you want to peck at the aura of a term that you simultaneously negate with this claim.

However, the concept of culture also suggests other interpretations and differentiations. In its original meaning, culture has, strangely enough, three opposing terms that say more about it than laborious definitions of the term culture itself: nature, barbarism, and civilization. Culture can only be determined on the basis of these and in contrast to them. Culture is originally, in its derivation, from “agriculture,” that is, worked nature. Furthermore, culture is the work on human nature. What is still raw in people, i.e., na-ture, is cultivated and refined with regard to the actual purpose of the human: autonomy and freedom. Culture always has a strong aesthetic component. Culture is always freedom from necessity, a game of fantasy and imagination, and not the practice in the practical constraints of the digitalized competitive society. In this sense, it could be that we actually lose culture because we only see everything from the point of view of usefulness.

TP: Education, of course, is the primary focus of your book. But education now means so many different things. How do you understand education?

KPL: The beautiful German word Bildung has a wide variety of meanings. Of course, this includes essential aspects of upbringing (“Education”), but the imparting of scientific, cultural, aesthetic and historical knowledge is also part of education for me. And finally, education also has a lot to do with self-education, with the formation and cultivation of mind, body and soul, with the development of dispositions and talents.

TP: There is much talk about “skills” and getting students ready for jobs (which are non-existent). Do you think universities are betraying young people because they are training them to be obsolete?

KPL: Our dynamic world no longer allows precise predictions about the world of work of tomorrow. So it is hardly possible to train young people for a certain profession. Universities shouldn’t do that either. Universities should offer a scientific education that represents a solid basis for future prospects.

TP: You offer a very pertinent quotation from the German philosopher Peter Bieri, who also writes novels under the pseudonym, Pascal Mercier – “…the educated person reads books in such a way that they change him?” Could you speak about this “change?”

KPL: Well, Peter Bieri talks mainly about reading literature, novels, short stories, poetry. According to his thesis, the reader of literature learns how to talk about the way people think, want and feel. The reader learns the language of the soul. He learns that one can feel differently about the same thing than he is used to. He learns new words and new metaphors for mental events. Because his vocabulary, his conceptual repertoire, has grown, he can now talk about his experience in a more nuanced way, and this in turn enables him to feel more differentiated. Whoever feels more differentiated, who now has words for complex feelings, has changed through reading. Reading helps to better understand other people, other situations in life, strange worlds. Precisely because this is so important in a diverse world, I don’t understand why literature is disappearing from schools.

TP: Do you think education is secular redemption?

KPL: No, I do not think so. But very often it is pretended that all the problems of our world are solved if enough is invested into education. In no area of life is there so much hope set as in that of education; there is no authority that is trusted as much as education. Education is a sought-after resource for countries with few natural resources in global competition; education is seen as a medium with which girls, migrants, outsiders, lower classes, the disabled and oppressed minorities are to be emancipated, promoted, integrated and included; and education should protect young people from being seduced by drugs, the Islamic State, and protect them from the populists. Education is supposedly the means by which prejudice, discrimination, unemployment, hunger, obesity, anorexia, AIDS, inhumanity and genocide is prevented—the challenges of the future are met and children are happy, and young sdults should be made employable: But none of that is possible. There are far too many expectations placed on education— and that is why one is always disappointed in education.

TP: Technology has given modern man much leisure time – but modern man is also forever in a rush, never having enough time for anything. Could you explain this paradox?

KPL: I think modern technology is ambivalent: it gives us freedom and makes us dependent. This also characterizes digitization. Any relief will be undone by the variety of possibilities that this technology offers and that we want to exhaust. That’s why we’re constantly rushed because we don’t want to miss anything. And we don’t want to miss anything because we no longer have any idea what is really important in our life. I hardly exlcude myself from all this. Technology has a great seductive power—we forget how much it makes us slaves to our machines. The machines should serve us and not we who should serve the machines.

TP: Will technology make institutional education unnecessary?

KPL: I do not believe that it will. The current corona crisis in particular shows how important schools and universities are. Learning is primarily a social process; meeting people is constitutive for educational processes, not working through programs.

TP: You mention the term “pseudo-scientificization of pedagogy” used by the philosopher Julian Nida-Rümelin. Could you explain what this means?

KPL: We have a fundamental problem with the scientification of professions that could be viewed more as craft, such as education. A good teacher doesn’t have to be a good scientist, and a good scientist is by no means a good teacher. Nevertheless, I believe that in a modern knowledge-society, teachers in schools need scientific training, because the sciences are the basis of teaching. The fact that so much fake news and conspiracy theories are circulating today also has to do with the fact that we don’t know enough about how knowledge is produced and communicated.

TP: You make a very powerful statement in your book—“No, education alone cannot change a society.” What led you to this conclusion?

KPL: If you will permit: the historical experience. The current balance of power is reflected in every idea of education; the hope that the youth will do better one day has still been disappointed. Social changes result from social and economic tensions, from technological innovations, and, yes, also from wars. Education alone can do little here. And yet I do not give up the hope that educated people treat themselves, treat others, treat the environment a little more carefully than is currently happening.

TP: There is a very intriguing chapter in your book, entitled, “Europe Considered as Fine Art. Towards an Aesthetics of a Continent.” How should we understand this?

KPL: The idea was, based on the famous book “On Murder Considered as One of the Fine Arts” by Thomas de Quincey, not to look at Europe from an economic, political or bureaucratic point of view, but rather from an aesthetical one. How does a colorful map of Europe from the Middle Ages, the 19th century and the present affect us? What role do the great authors from Homer to Shakespeare to Flaubert and Dostoevsky play in our conception of Europe? What significance does “absolute music” have as a genuine European invention for European consciousness? Is it a coincidence that the “European Anthem” goes back to Beethoven’s 9th Symphony? And what do metaphors from architecture, such as, the talk of the “common-house Europe” mean for our self-image? I wanted to pursue these and similar questions.

TP: You also make an essential difference between art and science. Do both exist for the “betterment” of “society?”

KPL: No. They do not exist “for” the betterment of society. Because art and science have to be free and autonomous, only then do they work well. If they are subjected to other purposes, no matter how desirable to us, art and science will be corrupted. Ideology and morality therefore have no place in art and science. But as an expression of freedom, art and science can also be a model for what a sovereign and self-confident human life could look like. But: art is not science and science is not art. Art is committed to imagination and aesthetic form, science to empiricism and rationality.

TP: In your invigorating discussion of revolution, you talk about Henning Ritter’s Die Schreie der Verwundeten (Screams of the Wounded). Why are revolutions cruel?

KPL: I don’t know. But they are. All. Every revolution has betrayed its goals and ideals. Perhaps this is due to a fatal logic: because revolutionaries believe they are on the right side of history, they consider anything to be permitted in order to achieve their goals. Whoever considers everything to be allowed because the end justifies the means becomes cruel, evil, inhuman. We must distrust revolutionaries of all shades.

TP: You call modern democracy “an administrator of poverty.” That is both a marvelous and a disturbing phrase, given the ease with which censorship is now applied and the strict control of speech (especially in English-speaking countries). Is this the result of the “mercantilization of society and life,” to use your apt term?

KPL: This question touches on several aspects. The modern, democratic state becomes an “administrator of poverty” insofar as we see it primarily as a welfare state that is supposed to alleviate the worst negative consequences of economic and ecological developments. The state is no longer a center of power, but a compensation institution. This can be seen clearly, for example, in education policy, which has actually become social policy under the keywords “equity of opportunity” and “equal opportunities.” And the state is increasingly understood as a moral institution that has to ensure that people speak correctly, think correctly, love correctly, eat rightly and act correctly. Sometimes nudging is enough, sometimes it leads to regulations and prohibitions. This undoubtedly restricts human freedom. In addition, we model our lives in principle according to the model of the market, according to the model of companies. Professors become knowledge-managers, lovers become people who invest emotions with the hope of high returns.

TP: The structure of the “political party,” you state, has fallen into a crisis as a political model. Do you think such political parties have a future?

KPL: Well, I am not advocating the abolition of parties, I just see how the traditional big parties—bourgeois parties, social democratic parties—get into a crisis and new parties emerge faster and faster, which can also quickly disappear. This has to do with the fact that people are no longer clearly defined socially and culturally. Changing interests lead to changing political representations. As the name suggests, parties correspond to a part of the whole; a democracy should be able to identify itself in the interaction of the parties. But you can imagine a democracy—as in antiquity—without parties, even without elections: you can also draw lots for important functions among the citizens.

TP: The idea of “limits” or “borders” is an important one in your thought. How should we understand these two terms, and is there a connection between borders and education?

KPL: Border in a double sense (“limit” and “border”) plays an important role not only in my thinking, but also in thinking in general. Without drawing boundaries, we cannot think; every “definition” is such a boundary. Boundaries teach us to differentiate, and boundaries mark differences. But limits are also an instruction to act: up to here and no further. And I could go on. Limits can therefore always be postponed, changed, exceeded. Borders therefore arouse curiosity; they refer us to the neighbor on the other side. This is also important for education: boundaries never divide absolutely, but they show what is here and what is there. And in a political and legal sense, borders have been invented to protect the weak. The strong do not need limits. “No borders” used to be the battle cry of aggressors. I don’t know if it’s really any different today. Of course, one shouldn’t draw rigid, inhumane boundaries. But without borders, our thinking and the world sink into chaos.

TP: “Anyone who thinks is fundamentally intolerant.” Could you explain this interesting phrase, and is the work of the intellectual still relevant?

KPL: The sentence sounds provocative, but it isn’t. The thinker is concerned with, arguable, justifiable insights, with the claim to truth. Tolerance is a wrong principle in science. As Karl Popper already taught, one has to do everything possible to falsify hypotheses and theories, i.e., to show that they are false. Theories only acquire a certain plausibility if this does not succeed. Thinking can and must be intolerant because it is not about the tolerance of other opinions, but about the search for truth. Tolerance would mean that we would no longer be able to recognize errors. That would be fatal. Intellectuals have the task of making that clear. Tolerance is only required in questions of religious belief, not in questions of scientific truth.

TP: In the final chapter of your book, you call for a “new Enlightenment.” What will this “new” Enlightenment look like?

KPL: My point is that the new Enlightenment should build on forgotten dimensions of the old Enlightenment. In this context I recall a contemporary of Immanuel Kant, the German-Jewish philosopher, Moses Mendelssohn. For Mendelssohn, enlightenment, i.e., science and rationality, was one aspect of general human education. The other side was culture, i.e., art and emotion. We have to learn again to think together the many dimensions of man. That also means that education has to educate itself about itself.

TP: Are you hopeful about the future of the West?

KPL: The philosopher Günther Anders, who spoke about the “antiquity of man,” once remarked: Hope is just another word for cowardice. If the ideas of European humanism are important to us, we should do everything we can to assert these ideas; that does not exclude criticism and self-criticism. But if we want to say goodbye to them because we are falling back into tribal structures, or want to submit to the dictates of the digital industries, we can do that too. In both cases there is nothing to hope for.

TP: Professor Liessmann, thank you so very much for your time. It has truly been a great pleasure and honor to speak to you.


The featured image shows, “Portrait of a Young Scholar,” attributed to either Jan van Scorel or Maarten van Heemskerck, painted in 1531.


Translated from the German by N. Dass.

Neo-Positivist Realism: A Discussion With Emil O.W. Kirkegaard

Grégoire Canlorbe continues his intriguing interviews with people who are forging new ways of understanding the world. This time around, he is in conversation with Emil O. W. Kirkegaard, who is a Danish intelligence researcher and freelance data scientist. Learn more at his website. Before you ask—there is no connection with existentialist philosopher, Søren Aabye Kierkegaard. However, Emil Kirkegaard’s great-grandfather, Harald Rudyard Engman, was a Danish dissident, anti-Nazi artist, who was exiled to Sweden during Word War II. The featured image is a work by Harald Engman. We are so very delighted to have Mr. Kirkegaard join us.


Grégoire Canlorbe (GC): Your name is notably associated with the study of stereotype accuracy—especially those stereotypes underlying immigration policy preferences in Danes. How would you sum up your research in this field?

Emil O.W. Kirkegaard (EOWK): It all began some years ago, around the time of my father’s 50th birthday (in 2014). I was visiting Sweden, because his girlfriend is Swedish, and my father decided to rent a house in Skåne, occupied East Denmark, for the birthday party.

Emil O.W. Kirkegaard.

Some years prior I had read Steven Pinker’s The Blank Slate, and recalled that he made some reference to the accuracy of demographic stereotypes. Checking out the supporting references, I found the same names repeated many times: Lee Jussim and Clark McCauley (all the cited works are in an edited book, Lee et al., 1995). I Googled the names of the authors and found a copy of a book chapter with the great title, The Unbearable Accuracy of Stereotypes. It contained a neat summary of the evidence, as it was at the time (Jussim et al., 2009).

I realized there was an entire scientific literature on this topic, one that wasn’t as stupid as my general impression of social psychology. Recall this was in the middle of the early years of the replication crisis, with priming results falling left and right. After that, I checked out the library (that is, Library Genesis, the Russian pirate library), and found that Lee Jussim had written a book in 2012, Social Perception and Social Reality: Why Accuracy Dominates Bias and Self-Fulfilling Prophecy, and I immediately started reading it (Jussim, 2012). While reading this book, I immediately saw the connection to Bayesianism, which I was familiar with because I had long been reading the blogs from people in the Silicon Valley rationalism movement (focused on LessWrong in those days; now mostly reduced to the Scott Alexander-verse).

Say that you’re judging some person for some trait, say being anti-social. The prior belief is the initial guess about some individual based on whatever demographics one can immediately glance at, whether this is sex, age, country of origin, race, name, clothing and so on.

As such, the question of stereotypes is easy to attack scientifically: simply ask subjects to estimate the group means of various groups, and see how well these line up with reality. In fact, a decent sized, but haphazard, set of studies had been done like this, and they pretty much invariably turned up strong evidence of accuracy (the exception being when the data assumed to represent reality was questionable (see, Heine et al., 2008).

At the same time, I had just started studying immigrant outcomes in Europe, and had in my possession a big dataset from Denmark, where we had crime rates, mean incomes, rates of use of social welfare, educational attainment, and unemployment for some 70 immigrant groups in Denmark, as grouped by country of origin (or of their mothers (Kirkegaard & Fuerst, 2014).

In other words, I had the perfect criterion data to study stereotype accuracy in Denmark, and I knew that similar data existed for other European countries, so there was a way to expand afterwards (Kirkegaard, 2014b; 2015). I then found a way to buy survey data fairly inexpensively. We first conducted a pilot study and found quite large accuracy, despite recruiting unrepresentative people online (such as from my Facebook!).

I then managed to raise some funding from friendly sources, and our first big study was published in Open Psych journals in 2016 (Kirkegaard & Bjerrekær, 2016a; 2016c). I tried to do things right, from the start: large sample size (about 500), pre-registered analyses, and open science practices (open access, data, code, and reviewing).

As mentioned above, I was familiar with the replication crisis issues in social psychology and did not want to contribute to such poor practices. I also knew that my results would get attacked by leftists, and thus had to be extra strong to withstand scrutiny (Gottfredson, 2007; Kirkegaard, 2020). However, our results were crystal clear—the main aggregate stereotype correlated r = .70 with real differences—and the results were closely in line numerically with the findings that Lee Jussim had summarized.

The idea of linking this data to the immigration preferences was good, and obvious in hindsight, but it wasn’t mine. Noah Carl was the first to combine the two ideas in his 2016 paper, also in Open Psych (Carl, 2016). After reading his paper, I knew the next step forward was to measure all three variables in a single study: real group differences (insofar as government data can tell), stereotypes (estimates of those differences), and finally policy preferences for the same groups.

When looking at immigrant groups, it was obvious that popular opposition to immigrants was closely in line with the actual immigrant groups with high rates of social problems, whether crime or welfare dependencies (so in practice, against Muslim groups). I teamed up with Noah for a study like this, and we wanted to get it out somewhere “mainstream.”

So, we tried a bunch of social psychology journals; with not much luck. One editor, Karolina Hansen, at a Polish university, told us we needed to explicitly state, multiple times, that Muslims were not causing their own misfortunates, whereas our study was agnostic on this topic. I guess I should not be so surprised since, despite being in Poland, she has a Danish last name, so was probably infected by the Woke memeplex.

Unfortunately, it was around that time that troubles began for Noah Carl, and he had to divert time to defending himself against the communist campaign and its friends in the media (Carl, 2019). It didn’t end well; and he was fired. We managed to finally publish this work in 2020 (Kirkegaard et al., 2020).

To return to the question, I would say that my work in this field has just begun, and I expect to publish a bunch more studies on immigrants, stereotypes and their links to intelligence. We are currently finishing up a big study in the Netherlands, with similar results. The last part is important, because from an intelligence research perspective, having accurate stereotypes is simply a manifestation of the general factor of intelligence, already strongly correlated with general knowledge.

So, one should see pervasive correlations between stereotype accuracy and intelligence. And, in fact, that is the case. Some left-wing psychologists and their media cheerleaders hilariously tried to brand this as a negative aspect of intelligence (Khazan, 2017; Lick et al., 2018; Sputnik News Staff, 2017).

GC: A well-known investigation of yours deals with the dataset of OKCupid’s users. You especially focus on the association of cognitive ability with self-reported criminal behavior—and with religiousness. Could you tell us more about it?

EOWK: Back in 2010, or thereabouts, I discovered the OKCupid dating site, and used it myself. The dating site really was very special, as no other dating site collected so much interesting data on their users. Most dating sites attempted only crude social matching, or even dumber things like astrological signs. However, OKCupid was started by a mathematician, and he had a better idea, despite having no background in psychology.

As a big fan of open science, I was wondering how to get a copy of the data for my own curiosity. I teamed up with a programmer to do a scraping (automatic download) of the website, and we managed to download data from nearly 70,000 users. Mind you, a lot of these profiles are essentially empty and not useful. But still, the dataset is amazing, and one can typically use about 10-30k users in a study, depending on which variables are desired and which subgroups.

Again, in the spirit of open science, we wanted to share this data with the world, so we sent our paper to review at Open Psych (Kirkegaard & Bjerrekær, 2016b). I don’t recall exactly how it happened, but some mainstream social psychologists started retweeting my tweet to the data (e.g., Brian Nosek of OSF), and eventually the SJWs joined in (Oliver Keyes was a notable nutty blogger who wrote some rambling blogpost on this, since apparently deleted), or maybe the other way around.

In any case, it ended up being a global media event of sorts, where we got featured in various big outlets: Wired, Forbes, Vox, Vice, even Fortune magazine. A guy I went to school with, in 2006, called me and wanted some input for an article he was writing for the Danish state media. The data on the website was really already public, and just required a free user (some of it). It’s just that when this data sits in 70,000 profiles, it is not as useful for analysis as when it is in a spreadsheet-type format. The task of scraping could be done by a chimpanzee, and involves visiting random profiles and copypasting the data into a big spreadsheet. In fact, the website itself wrote in its user agreement that users should consider the data public (“You should appreciate that all information submitted on the Website might potentially be publicly accessible. Important and private information should be protected by you”).

In the end, OSF deleted the copy of the dataset on their service, following a copyright complaint from OKCupid’s owners. Someone reported me to the Danish data protection agency, and they sent me some questions in a threatening manner, which I didn’t answer; and then after a few months, they gave up the case. The media never reported on this dropping of the case. So, in the eyes of the media and the public, it appears I was accused and presumed guilty of some crime; when, in fact, a case was not even filed against me in court.

Aside from all, the dataset is really quite something. This is because the questions on the site were mostly made by users themselves; and because of this, some of them asked about things that psychologists would not dare to ask about. They are also a lot more diverse in topics than what interests psychologists. We have published some studies looking at intelligence estimation based on some 14 questions with high g-loadings; and intelligence scores from these do in fact relate to religiousness, crime (self-reported, not optimal), political interest and so on, in the usual ways (Kirkegaard, 2018; Kirkegaard & Bjerrekær, 2016b; Kirkegaard & Lasker, 2020).

This is doubly interesting because the data was filled out by users knowing well that other users would be reading their answers; thus suggesting that social desirability bias should be large here. Evidently, it is not large enough to remove the usual associations. Later on, the website got bought out by Big Dating, that also owns Tinder and others, and the website is now a low quality clone of Tinder; a shell of its former glory. Sad! The most interesting remnant of the website, aside from this (unfortunately) partial copy of the site’s database (and others that exist), is that the founder wrote a book on some analyses he did (Rudder, 2015). It’s really a commercialization, and not a very good at that, of the old OKTrends blog. Fortunately, internet polymath Gwern has archived the blog, so people can, and should, read the unredacted analyses.

GC: Your university background is linguistics. Do you believe race differences may be manifested in language? What are your thoughts about Umberto Eco’s remark that “the language of Europe is translation”?

EOWK: I did a bachelor degree in linguistics, starting in 2010. Before that I studied philosophy for two years, but I was disillusioned with that department and the field, and did not finish the degree. I was always good with language in school, and since I was already interested in the philosophy of language, branching out to linguistics was not a big step.

Honestly, though, studying linguistics had a big advantage: there were no class attendance requirements, so I could avoid going to classes (these are a waste of time). This freed up a huge chunk of time, and allowed me to sleep during the day and work at the night, whenever this was practical (I have non-24 disorder). Passing exams was really mostly a matter of writing three essays (10-15 pages in length) every 6 months, one for each class that one took that semester. Each class was usually based on some book or some papers, which you read. All in all, writing a paper takes perhaps two days, editing included, and reading the required material takes maybe another three days; so we’re looking at about fifteen days of work every 6 months.

In Denmark, the state pays students a stipend to study, about US $800, and there is low-cost, subsidized student housing available too. So, this income is livable; and one can even invest some of it in Bitcoin on the side (Moon Inc.). The rest of the time, I used unwisely to play too much on the computer. But still a large proportion of the time I used to self-study psychology, genetics, statistics and programming. When I was doing the master’s (candidate) in linguistics, in 2015, I was already good enough that a high-profile professor wrote to recruit me for his startup in genetics. That ended my career in academia, not that I was keenly interested in pursuing a linguistics PhD.

So, with my unusual linguistics background aside, what about race and language? It’s hard to say because linguists are, generally speaking, non-quantitative people, and don’t look at these things, except in bland ways. There are some findings on how the physical shape of humans differ by race, and this affects the sounds they produce. Africans have notably larger lips and a broader nose (for cooling), and this results in slight differences in the sounds they make. I don’t think this is very important, however.

More interesting in the big picture are associations between culture and language (an extreme version is called linguistic relativity); and of course, some cultures are vastly more complex than others. Some languages are really quite simple, lacking words for most scientific concepts, some for even basic mathematics, like counting. I am not aware of any formal study of ethnic group IQs and their language features. Economists conduct these kinds of studies, trying to spot relationships between psychological traits and languages, and how this should be reflected in economic outcomes. Best thing they have come up with is that languages that allow dropping of pronouns are higher in some good stuff (Feldmann, 2019; He et al., 2020; Mavisakalyan & Weber, 2018).

There is a big dataset of language features called The World Atlas of Language Structures (WALS), which is used to study this stuff (the field is called linguistic typology). It has data for some 2700 languages last time I looked, and these are given geographical coordinates, countries, and so on. One could match this to ethnic IQs and national IQs, failing that, and maybe something useful would come out of this. Honestly, I have not looked, because I don’t think anything interesting will come out of it. I did take an initial look at the data from a quantitative perspective in a preprint never published (not even submitted anywhere, (Kirkegaard, 2021); I posted it as a formal preprint for the purpose of this interview).

The national data is rather small for languages, because of the extensive family relationships between them. So, the effective sample size is less than the number of countries. Biologists are familiar with this problem, and have standard phylogenetic regression methods to handle it, and linguists also (they do it in a worse way), but economists less so. I think it is better to proceed here with ordinary national IQs work, and expanding to the genetics of these, á la what Davide Piffer has been doing since 2013 (Piffer, 2013; 2015, 2019, 2020a, 2020b), and what we did in our big 2016 paper looking at the genetic ancestry of countries and their subdivisions (Fuerst & Kirkegaard, 2016). I am not familiar with Umberto Eco, so I have no comment on that quote.

GC: As an avowed proponent of eugenics, do you share the belief in COVID-19 pandemic’s purifying role? What is your assessment of the reservations on negative eugenics that Charles Darwin—while acknowledging the attenuation of natural selection in Victorian England—expressed in The Descent of Man? Namely that “the surgeon may harden himself whilst performing an operation, for he knows that he is acting for the good of his patient; but if we were intentionally to neglect the weak and helpless, it could only be for a contingent benefit, with an overwhelming present evil.”

EOWK: COVID-19 almost only kills old people who are no longer reproducing, so it has no eugenic or dysgenic effect. If one wanted to be really cynical, one could say that by killing off a bunch of unproductive people, it is easing the state’s welfare budgets, though causing large initial costs in healthcare.

I agree with Darwin. There is an uneasiness with realizing the problem of dysgenics and doing anything about it. Galton himself commented on this in his autobiography (1908): “Man is gifted with pity and other kindly feelings; he also has the power of preventing many kinds of suffering. I conceive it to fall well within his province to replace Natural Selection by other processes that are more merciful and not less effective.” So, how can we do things more mercifully? Many have thought about this problem (Glad, 2004).

I submit that we don’t need to do too much. Some countries have already managed to reduce the intelligence-fertility relationship to quite a weak negative or null association through existing social policies and cultural changes (Kolk & Barclay, 2019; Meisenberg, 2008; Reeve et al., 2018).

Aside from that, we have the tools at hand to reverse the problem: embryo selection and genome editing. With the latter, we can edit embryos to remove some known errors, insofar as these are known (typically well-known genetic disorders). The former technology has been here for years, but needs to be augmented with a modern genomics approach, and to get rid of the communist ethos that prevents this from happening (Anomaly, 2018; 2020; Anomaly & Jones, 2020).

Interestingly, survey evidence shows that large fractions of the world population, with notable differences between countries, are already in favor of such technology, and this fraction is increasing over time, just as it did when the original IVF technology emerged (Pew Research Center, 2020; Zigerell, 2019). On the technology side, we need to figure out how to produce a lot of egg cells (sperm are plenty!), and combine these with the best sperm cells if possible (sperm selection), nurture the resulting embryos, and pick the best combination of genes among the sibling embryos according to the best genetic prediction models.

This approach was outlined in Gattaca back in 1997, so this is hardly new. We just need to get serious about it. Galton suggested the same more than 100 years ago (“I take Eugenics very seriously, feeling that its principles ought to become one of the dominant motives in a civilised nation, much as if they were one of its religious tenets”).

If we let the power of capitalism achieve this, we can all have healthier, smarter, prettier, more creative children, and work towards improving our Kardashev score. Considering the current way Western elite thought is moving, there is probably not so much hope for this. Richard Lynn made similar forecasts in his 2001 book, Eugenics: A Reassessment.

GC: A nation’s collective intelligence partly lies in its average IQ. It also lies in its ability to network the various individual IQs within it in an efficient way, i.e., in a way allowing the nation to solve challenges and to prevail in intergroup competition. Efficient networking within a national brain notably includes intragroup competition for innovation—and the shifting of resources towards sound innovators, i.e., individuals bringing a way of thinking which is different, novel, but also more efficient than the previous admitted thought patterns. Do you sense a correlation between average IQ and efficient networking? Historically, which nation performed best in terms of intragroup cognitive collaboration?

EOWK: It’s a tough question because competing nations throughout history have not generally been so easy to compare, since they differ in population size, and change their borders and thus populations over time as well (e.g., modern Austria vs. Austria-Hungary vs. Greater Germany). The ultimate test of inter-group competition is warfare, and so one can look at which countries are very good at this, or have good standing militaries (Karlin, 2020). One can go beyond looking at who won a lot of wars.

One can look at efficiency specifically, and for World War II, there are some numbers here on the combat efficiency of soldiers from the warring states. Though these were calculated by the US army after the war, it probably won’t surprise many to learn that Nazi Germany’s soldiers were the most efficient in per capita terms. Specifically, the research computed the worth of a solider, setting the Nazi German one to 1.00, yields values of 1.10 Americans, 1.45 British, and >4 Slavic (Polish or Russian) (Kretaner, 2020; Turchin, 2007). Details of the calculations are hard to find, and I have been unable to find numbers for World War I or any other wars.

But I admit to not being a military historian and not having spent more than a few hours looking. Peter Turchin talks a lot about this collective efficiency. He uses the term, Asabiya for this, from the great Islamic golden age thinker, Ibn Khaldun. We can make some guesses though. Group efficiency is higher when people have a feeling of belonging.

Most academic research finds negative effects of ethnic/race diversity on social trust (Dinesen et al., 2020), and given the iniquitousness of ethnic voting in democracies, and the endless anti-European hatred from the European left, it’s hard to disagree with a diagnosis of an overall negative effect of ethnic diversity on collective effectiveness.

We currently live in a time of extreme political polarization (mostly Europeans versus other Europeans in the same countries), mostly caused I think by the radicalization of the global media by communist Woke theories from academia. Zach Goldberg is doing great work on this topic (Goldberg, 2019a; 2019b).

China, on the other hand, is going strong in terms of collective efficiency, insofar as their human capital allows (corruption is endemic outside WEIRD populations; (Henrich, 2020)). All this aside, collective efficiency is positively affected by national average intelligence, and this shows up in any kind of analysis one does. Intelligence is at the individual level related to trust, honesty, competence at any job, patience and so on. So, it is not surprising that countries with smarter people outcompete others by large margins (Kirkegaard & Karlin, 2020).

GC: You dedicate yourself to exploring the relationship of personal names to factors like social status, intelligence, age, and country of origin. What are your conclusions at it stands? Do you subscribe to the Jewish belief that someone’s name predicts his destiny?

EOWK: I’ve never heard of this Jewish belief, but it is certainly true that names have associations with outcomes in life. You see when most social scientists discover such patterns, they immediately think it results from some kind of discrimination (the so-called second sociologist fallacy: any group difference is caused by discrimination by the above average groups). They devise experiments to show that people preferentially hire people with higher status names, and so on (Bertrand & Mullainathan, 2004; Oreopoulos, 2011). Yes, I am sure one can find some evidence of this stuff. It goes back to the stereotype discussion initially. People act in a crudely Bayesian manner; they use whatever information about an individual they can find. Sometimes researchers give people only names, and so of course people will use such information until they can get better information. This is both rational and not a big mystery.

My entry into this topic was, again, due to nice data presenting itself, but in a less useful format. A Danish newspaper bought government statistics about first names of people living in Denmark, specifically about their average incomes, crime rates, and so on. This data were then published on a website, sort of. There was a search function and one could look up any name to see the stats for that name; but no way to download all the data.

Together with a friend, we figured out how to get the entire dataset behind this website. We then carried out a bunch of analyses of this. We confirmed the usual “S factor” pattern. Maybe we should call this Thorndike’s Rule, as he wrote in 1920: “a still broader fact or principle—namely, that in human nature good traits go together. To him that hath a superior intellect is given also on the average a superior character; the quick boy is also in the long run more accurate; the able boy is also more industrious. There is no principle of compensation whereby a weak intellect is offset by a strong will, a poor memory by good judgment, or a lack of ambition by an attractive personality. Every pair of such supposed compensating qualities that have been investigated has been found really to show correspondence.” (Quoted from Gwern’s page on correlations).

Anyway, in our data, names with higher mean incomes were also, on average, less crime prone, and worked better jobs and so on (Kirkegaard & Tranberg, 2015). So, for every name, one can score it on this composite measure of social status, or “general socioeconomic factor,” as I called it in 2014 (Kirkegaard, 2014a), in a study of countries. I got the idea from reading Richard Lynn and Gregory Clark’s books in short succession (Clark, 2014; Lynn & Vanhanen, 2012). Clark talks about how everyone is born with a latent, genetic score for this generalized social status; and the various social status indicators in life are an imperfect indicator of this (and the other part being mostly luck).

However, if one relies on last name data, one can actually see that the heritability of the latent general social status is about 75%. This finding replicates across many datasets from different countries, even in Maoist China. It’s really quite astonishing. I realized then, that the same thing can be said for countries and subpopulations inside countries, such as immigrant groups (Kirkegaard & Fuerst, 2014).

In our follow-up study, we were also able to show that average intelligence measured in the Danish army correlated quite well with this general social status of names (Kirkegaard, 2019). Personally, I don’t think having a funny name does much to harm one’s career; and it’s a quite simple matter to change it these days, if one really thinks so.

The fact of the matter is rather than funny parents give their kids funny names, and low status parents their kids low status names, and so on. This results in first names being differentiated by genetic propensity for social status, despite not being a family. One can even see dysgenics this way in our Danish data, as higher social status names had fewer “kids;” a kind of pseudo-fertility measure; and so these reduce their share of the population over time. Elite families dying out is a familiar finding for many historians.

GC: It is sometimes asked whether our ontological concepts (causality, identity, quantity, and so on) are intended in the human mind to relate to objective properties of the observed things. Or, on the contrary, only serve as molds, allowing the human mind to clarify, organize the empirical data; but having nothing to do with the content of reality. It is also asked whether the human mind is able to draw its concepts from an immaterial dimension reached through suprasensible perceptions. Or, on the contrary, is condemned to rely on itself—and on sensible experience. What is your take on such issues?

EOWK: That philosophy is a waste of time. For those few who still want to wade into this territory, I highly recommend Alan Sokal’s writings on ontological realism, quantum mechanics and postmodernism (Sokal, 2008; Sokal & Bricmont, 1999).

In my opinion, the best philosophy is written by working scientists or philosophers with a very close relationship to science (and I don’t mean doing some pop-neuroscience). For those wanting to put a label on me, I like to refer to myself as a neo-positivist scientific realist. This is essentially the view that evolution favors organisms that have some level of accuracy of their perception of the real world, which come equipped with a bunch of mostly adaptive cognitive biases (“tinted glasses”), and that through rigorous application of the scientific process, we can better see reality as it really is.

Unfortunately, I don’t think that social science is close to this scientific ideal, being staffed by the wrong people, with the wrong incentives. Social science would do better if we fired everybody who works there, and hired some random physicists to figure things out. This is essentially what Dominic Cummings did in order to win the 2016 Brexit vote, his blog has a bunch of stuff on this.

GC: Going back to linguistics, you may have heard of the proposition “Est vir qui adest.” Namely the anagram for Pilate’s question to Jesus, “Quid est veritas?” What does such connection inspire to you? Which one of Jesus or Pilatus is the chad—and which one the virgin?

EOWK: I generally don’t read fiction, so I am not overly familiar with the Bible stories. Considering that Jesus supposedly died as a childless Virgin (if we disregard the Mary possibility), and Wikipedia tells me that Pilate apparently had a wife, and we don’t know anything about any potential children. So, it boils down to the interesting question of whether Jesus was as holy as he claims to be (i.e., the Gospels claim him to be!), considering the base rate of fertility rates among cult leaders. On the balance of probabilities, I am going with Chad Jesus and the groupies theory, and may God forgive my atheist sins!

GC: Thank you for your time. Would you like to add something?

EOWK: These were some very far reaching questions. You certainly have a talent for interviewing. Maybe you can get a job at Playboy!


The featured image shows, “Nyboder with figures, evening,” by Harald Rudyard Engman, painted in 1931.

The Sana’a Manuscripts: Early Koran?

The Sana’a manuscripts were discovered in the Grand Mosque of the city of Sana’s, Yemen, in 1972, by construction workers, who gathered up all the old, rotting pages, stuffed them into potato bags, and left them beneath some stairs. Nothing was done until 1981, when Professor Gerd R. Puin, the leading scholar of Arabic orthography and Koranic paleography, undertook a systematic study. In this interview, Professor Puin speaks of the discovery and his study.

He is interviewed here by Professor Dr. Robert M. Kerr, the current head of Inarah, the foremost institute for the study of early Islam. Inarah publishes a yearly collection of work, of which the most recent edition is now available. Dr. Kerr’s work has appeared frequently in the pages of the Postil, including his recent article on the true meaning of “Mecca.”

This is a truly a fascinating interview…

Unfortunately for English readers, the majority of the important work being done on early Islam is in German and French. Perhaps, in the future, this will be rectified by way of good translations of this important work, which has entirely rewritten the history of the beginnings of Islam.

The featured image shows a leaf from the collection of fragments housed at Stanford University. This is “Sana’a1 Stanford ’07,” recto, which dates to before 671 AD.

Humans In Society: A Conversation With Aurelio José Figueredo

This month, we are especially honored to present this invigorating conversation with Professor Aurelio José Figueredo, who is a Cuban-American evolutionary psychologist. He is a Professor of Psychology, Family Studies and Human Development at the University of Arizona, where he is also the Director of the Ethology and Evolutionary Psychology Laboratory.

Aurelio José Figueredo

He has also been a long-time member of the interdisciplinary Center for Insect Science at the University of Arizona, which has regrettably been closed just this past month. His major areas of research interest are the evolutionary psychology and behavioral development of life history strategy, cognition, sex, and violence in human and nonhuman animals, and the quantitative ethology and social development of insects, birds, and primates. He is interviewed by Grégoire Canlorbe, on behalf of the Postil.

Grégoire Canlorbe (GC): Welcome, Professor Figueredo. It is a great pleasure to have you with us. You are notably known for your research on personality in nonhuman primates (including monkeys and chimpanzees). The Hominoid Personality Questionnaire was used as a quantifier of the big five personality traits in chimpanzees. Could you start by telling us more about it?

Aurelio José Figueredo (AJF): To be clear, the research on stumptail macaques, published in 1995, used a different list of behavioral traits which had been developed by Stevenson-Hinde, & Zunz (1978). The Hominoid Personality Questionnaire was used for our study of personality in chimpanzees in 1997, and was later extended to other Great Apes. That is an important distinction, because the findings of these two studies were different. The Great Apes all showed human-like personality structures resembling the human “Big Five,” although to varying degrees. The macaque monkeys showed a simpler pattern of three major factors; but whether this was a result of differences in the list of items used is unclear.

GC: A controversial hypothesis by J. Philippe Rushton is that fast life history – including traits like psychopathy – and a healthy, powerful mind, which is high in g, are negatively correlated at the individual level. Do you believe such correlation is indeed displayed – from lower animals to the most sophisticate of mammals?

AJF: There is something that we have called “The Rushton Paradox.” On the level of individual-differences, at least two meta-analyses (Woodley, 2011; Figueredo et al., 2014) have found weak and trivially small correlations between life history speed and general intelligence.

On the other hand, at the aggregate level of human social groupings or biogeographical regions, there is a strong positive correlation between slower life history strategies and aggregate cognitive abilities (e.g., Figueredo, Hertler, & Peñaherrera-Aguirre, 2020). This paradox was resolved by modeling the evolution of higher levels of aggregate intelligence as an emergent property of social groups rather than an individual-level adaptation (e.g., Figueredo et al., 2017).

In the 2017 paper that I cited, the one we called “Plants, Parasites, and People,” we constructed a model, which is a multiple-stage “Cascade Model,” that slow life history, first of all, is attributable to ecological factors; that we have warmer and wetter climate as well as higher parasite loads predicting human life history speed. Then, life history predicts a variety of other things in sequence before we get to intelligence.

For example, slow life history people are generally more cooperative – they have less crime and conflict within their groups. So, it creates a more cooperative society. And what we found out in other publications is that they are more strategically differentiated. They’re more diverse, both in their cognitive abilities and their life history strategies. Those are called the cognitive and strategic differentiation effort hypotheses.

What that cognitive and strategic diversification leads to is macroeconomic diversification where the society becomes, first of all, more productive as per Ricardo’s Law of Comparative Advantage – there’s a higher economic productivity consequent to having a greater degree of specialization and trade between the different specialists. It boosts the productivity of a society, and we use various indicators of macroeconomic diversification in that paper. And we show that the intelligence of a slow life history population is elevated indirectly, through this macroeconomic diversification, increasing their aggregate wealth, and thereby indirectly increasing their human capital.

Now see, once you increase your human capital, that leads to gains in IQ. But this kind of thing is called an emergent property of social groups, so that an individual can have individual traits like extraversion, or weight, or height, or anything like that, but an individual can’t have something like macroeconomic diversification all by himself or herself. That is not a property at an individual level. That is a property of an aggregate economy.

For example, I can’t have inflation. I can live in a society that has inflation, and I can be affected by inflation; but I don’t personally have an inflation rate, per se. Similarly, macroeconomic diversification is something that only exists at the aggregate level, and it is produced indirectly by a population’s aggregate slow life history.

Once you have that, it has the effect, and we documented that in this paper, of increasing the cranial capacity and the intelligence of the population. And that was our explanation of the Rushton paradox because it wasn’t just in one study. In study after study after study, the relationship between individual level IQ and individual level life history is trivially small. It’s extremely small, in many cases, not statistically significant.

Actually, J. Philippe Rushton, who passed away in 2012, is one of the people who were somewhat resistant to the results of such analyses. But this is what you get, like it or not. So, on an individual level, Phil Rushton was wrong. Now, I’m not saying this to bash Rushton. He was a very good friend. And I agreed with him on many things, but there are other things that we frankly argued about in a friendly way because we were friends for years. And we would argue – I’m sure you argue with your friends, that happens. And there are points of contention between you.

There is virtually no empirically-validated relation between individual IQ and individual life history strategy. But at the aggregate level, there is a very strong relation. And I sent you a couple of papers that show that between aggregate intelligence and aggregate life history. And that is the answer to the Rushton paradox. At least, that’s the answer that our group has proposed. As far as I know, nobody else would propose any solution to this paradox because most people are not even aware that there’s a paradox. But that is my answer to that question.

GC: A fundamental debate in psychology focuses on how knowing whether a certain behavioral pattern that is widespread, if not in all human societies, at least in most human societies (for instance, the prohibition of murder and incest), comes as the result of cultural selection. Or, on the contrary, it comes as the result of genetic selection – whether such a pattern was inherited from our primate ancestors, or designed in the Pleistocene era (or even later in the course of our species’ biological evolution). As an evolutionary psychologist, what criterion do you resort to when it comes to distinguishing between those of widespread (if not universal) behaviors due to cultural selection, and those due to genetic selection?

AJF: The framing of this question presupposes that “cultural selection” and “genetic selection” are two distinct and independent processes. Quite simply put, they are not. Since at least the 1980s, most mainstream theories of human evolution have incorporated the idea of gene-culture coevolution (e.g., Lumsden & Wilson, 1981; Richerson & Boyd, 2005), meaning that genetic changes produce selective pressures for cultural changes, and that cultural changes produce selective pressures for genetic changes.

You are correct that genetic selection continued to take place well after what is commonly presupposed to have been either in our distant nonhuman primate ancestors or in our own species during the distant past in the Pleistocene Era. Gene-culture coevolution has continued (and even accelerated) throughout the Holocene (Cochran & Harpending, 2009) and up to and including the Modern Era (Hertler et al., 2020).

One notable example is that of lactose tolerance, the ability of people like you and me to drink cow’s milk in adulthood. Now, all mammals are born with an enzyme called lactase, which digests the milk sugar, lactose, but they only have it for a certain period of time during infancy because mammals only feed on milk during their infancy, and afterwards no longer feed on milk. So, they don’t need the enzyme for lactose after that time. In certain human, not all human populations, but in certain human populations, that created a cultural adaptation because dairy farming is not genetic. They had a cultural innovation for dairy farming, and they substantially enhanced their nutrition and fitness.

And as a result of that, those populations evolved what’s called lactase persistence. In medicine it’s called lactose tolerance, but it’s really the persistence of that enzyme into adulthood. It is not distributed evenly throughout the world. Studies have been done, where, according to the archeological record, there has been like 5000 years of dairy farming.

So, in those areas, the gene for lactase persistence is highly prevalent. Where there has been very little to no dairy farming, you know, then, lactase persistence is absent. And for a long time in medical circles, this absence was called lactose intolerance and treated as a disorder. Because in societies derived from European or Mediterranean societies, it is rare to be lactose intolerant because everybody digests the milk from cows even as adults. Dairy farming is a clear-cut case of a cultural innovation – because nobody has ever identified a genetic mutation for dairy farming.

But wherever dairy farming took place over sufficient evolutionary time, and adults were drinking milk, a genetic mutation followed and spread throughout the population. I said cow’s milk, but it could be sheep’s milk or mare’s milk. It’s believed by some that mare’s milk was the first kind of non-human milk that we started drinking, out in the Eurasian steppes.

The proto-Eastern Europeans started doing that thousands of years ago. It is in those populations where that gene is not universal, but it’s highly prevalent because of the fitness advantages of being able to consume the milk of non-human animals even as an adult, even after you are past the breastfeeding period.

GC: Your name is attached to the claim that, instead of religion being the cultural cause of moral intuitions, the association between religiosity and moral intuitions comes as “a spurious correlation” caused by slow life history strategy. How do you develop that insight?

AJF: We developed and empirically supported that idea by testing various alternative structural equation models, some of which hypothesized religion as the cause of moral intuitions, and comparing them for best fit to the data that we had collected. The best model, by these empirical criteria, has life history strategy as the common cause of both. Both behavioral traits are thus ultimately reducible to that single biological cause, rather than one psychosocial trait causing the other.

GC: As a proponent of the multilevel selection approach, you probably know E.O. Wilson’s suggestion to leave behind kin selection theory (i.e., the claim that group selection only occurs at the level of groups of kin-related individuals), which he says has been refuted in Hymenoptera and a variety of other species (including homo sapiens). Do you believe kin selection, instead of being wholly inoperative, applies in some specific cases? What is your take on E.O. Wilson’s suggestion of a more comprehensive model of group selection – namely eusociality?

AJF: We do not agree (see, Hertler et al., 2020) that kin selection theory has been entirely “refuted” in Hymenoptera. In fact, we just wrote a recently accepted entry (“Hymenopteran Eusociality”) to the Encyclopedia of Animal Cognition and Behavior on that topic, which I can provide upon request.

What has been refuted is the idea that kin selection is the sole selective pressure underlying Hymenopteran eusociality. Other forces have also been conclusively shown to be at work, and kin selection alone is neither a necessary nor sufficient explanation for advanced forms of sociality.

In our view, kin selection models have largely been subsumed under more complex models of multilevel selection, only applying to altruistic relations among very close kin. For more diffuse kin networks, such as in human hypersociality among quite distant relatives, or ultrasociality, as it is sometimes called (Turchin, 2016), other theories need to be incorporated. The relative degrees of genetic relatedness within-groups and between-groups (as captured in the statistic Fst, for example) is still a cardinal parameter underlying social evolution, but it is not the only consideration. Ecological factors, for example, also feature prominently.

GC: The cover of your very new collaborative book, Multilevel Selection, reproduces Lionel Royer’s famous painting of Vercingetorix surrendering to Caesar. What motivates such illustration choice? In group selection and life history terms, how do you explain that the West has been unique in producing such a variety of great men (both in history and fiction)? To name but a few, Achilles, Ulysses, Alexander the Great, Sulla, Julius Caesar, Vercingetorix, William the Conqueror, Cesare Borgia, Julius II, Davy Crockett, Rhett Butler, Tony Montana, Frank Castle.

AJF: That cover was selected because we wanted to emphasize the continuing importance of competition between groups as a persisting selective pressure in historical populations. That scene was a particularly dramatic one, illustrating a relatively recent outcome of intergroup conflict.

As far as the West producing a disproportionate number of “great men,” I am not really sure that is true. Most of the examples that you give are military leaders. To those, I would retort with Temujin son of Yesugei (the “Genghis Khan,” which was a title, not a proper name), who conquered the largest contiguous land-based empire in human history, and his General Subutai, arguably the greatest military strategist that ever lived! If we are instead talking about spiritual/philosophical leaders, I could counter with the cases of K’ung Fu-Tse (“Confucious”), Lao-Tsu (founder of Taoism), and Prince Siddhartha Gautama (“The Buddha,” founder of the eponymous religious philosophy). In what way are these lesser men than their Western counterparts? I am simply skeptical of the premise behind this particular question.

GC: The fall of the Soviet Union resulted in ending the intergroup tournament between America and Russia. How do sum up the Cold War’s intragroup consequences on America’s biocultural fabric? What happened to the latter once the war was over?

AJF: The fall of the Soviet Empire clearly reduced the intergroup selective pressures to which US populations are subjected. Our current conflicts are cases of “asymmetrical warfare” against substantially weaker opponents. There hasn’t been a major war among “Great Powers” for over half a century. Not that I am looking forward to having one, mind you, but it would definitely ratchet up the group-selection pressure, as by providing a true “existential threat,” which the current crop of Jihadis simply do not do, in spite of all the fear-mongering about them. In several of our recent publications, we have documented the decline in group-selected values in “Britannic” populations (meaning the successor states of the British Empire, including the USA) as a direct consequence of the reduced intensity of competition between groups over the Late Modern Era (reviewed in Hertler et al., 2020).

Within our collaborative writing group, including colleagues like Michael A. Woodley of Menie, these group cohesion factors and things like loyalty, altruism, martial valor, self-sacrifice are thought to be group-selected traits that, within the context of a multilevel selection model, have sometimes been able to partially overcome the forces of individual selection, which are disruptive of these traits. They have been able to partially counteract, in certain historical periods, the forces of individual selection, which oppose group cohesion. But this can happen only under conditions of intense inter-group competition. And when that intense inter-group competition declines, for whatever reason, then these traits erode. We have documented this trend during the relatively peaceful and prosperous period that followed the very harsh and conflict-ridden Little Ice Age.

The Little Ice Age had raged throughout most of the early modern era, starting in the mid 14th Century, actually early 14th Century. And that was a period of very intense competition, resource scarcity, famine, pestilence, warfare. But the Little Ice Age came to an end at about 1817, and things have been relatively benign since that time, and the prevalence of warfare has substantially decreased. The prevalence of inter-group competition has decreased, generally.

So, we have been trying to frame group selection within a broader historical perspective in that respect. A lot of people don’t get the fact that social conflict has been decreasing over the past couple of centuries – actually, Steven Pinker (2011) wrote about this phenomenon in his own book, that even though millions and millions of people died in World War One and Two, your per capita risk of dying, corrected for the total population size, was much less in those two wars than in most of the wars of the more distant past. The actual per capita rate of war mortality has plummeted. Also, the rate of criminal homicide – the rate at which we kill each other – has declined, and all social competition has been substantially reduced since the end of the Little Ice Age. And as a result, the amount of violence has decreased in European and European-derived populations.

But we’ve also – Michael and I – found, for instance, that a lot of these pro-social values, a lot of the idea of sacrifices for the security of the group have been eroding consistently since the 1800s. In fact, we’re just now revising the paper that we recently submitted that show the data for this as well. And we can send you that paper, if you’re interested. But right now, it’s still in the review and revision stage.

The Soviet Union, in my reading of history, was the last great existential threat that the United States faced since the defeat of Germany and Japan in WW2. That was a serious challenge. Had the Germans and the Japanese won WW2, the Anglo-American hegemony that had been exerted over the world since the end of the Napoleonic Wars would have been reversed, and the dominance and hegemony of the Anglo-American, Britannic people would have been essentially broken. Similarly, had the Soviet Union won the Cold War, the same thing would have happened. That was a real threat.

Once the Soviet Union fell, there was virtually no threat from anyone in the world to the global dominance of the Britannic people for a long time. And as a result, we have shown by various types of evidence that their group selected traits and social cohesion have been eroded, and are presently in a state of decay.

Now, this may not persist, because some people believe that communist China is going to be the next big threat to this Pax Americana, so to speak. I don’t know enough political science to know whether that’s true or not, but some people are saying that there’s going to be another threat, whether there will be a cold war, or a hot war, or any kind of war is unknown. I have no way to predict that. But if that should happen, you will see a resurgence of this kind of nationalism and this kind of group cohesion in response – with respect to the external threat.

But without an external threat, the forces of group selection cannot overcome the forces of individual selection. Individual selection puts a premium on self-interest and not group welfare. And as a result, those are the evolutionary conditions that lead to the proliferation of individually-selected people and the erosion of group cohesion. So, the fall of the Soviet empire was just the latest episode in this process. It may not be the last. I can’t tell the future with any degree of confidence because there are still uncertainties, for example, as to what’s going to happen over time.

GC: Anthropologist Robert Ardrey did not hesitate to characterize man as a territorial animal, most likely evolved from carnivorous African primates; and not – as was then the scientific consensus – from Asian herbivores. Unless in the case of defensive wars, those intended to expulse one or more intruders, Ardrey nonetheless refused to include war among the manifestations of the territorial imperative. Rather he thought war to fall within cultural selection. Do you follow him on that point – or do you judge war to fall within biological adaptation?

Besides, how do you account for those inter-ethnic differences in territoriality we witness today? With superorganisms in the West proving prone to tolerating an ever-higher proportion of foreign ethnicities on their soil; and, conversely, those in Asia and Africa exhibiting persistently high levels of territoriality.

AJF: First off, Robert Ardrey was not much of an “Anthropologist.” He was primarily a playwright and screenwriter for most of his life (a very good one, in fact!) He then wrote some semi-popular science books to cash in on the then-current fad of writing potboilers based on human evolutionary science and ethology.

Ardrey’s speculations notwithstanding, war is indeed a biological adaptation and is a straightforward manifestation of violent intergroup competition. We see it in many other species besides ourselves, as with many eusocial insects. We also have evidence for the antiquity of warfare in our own species, dating back to prehistoric as well as contemporary pre-state societies (see, Keeley, 1996), where it has been present nearly universally.

For example, the archeology of the European Neolithic is littered with the mass graves of the defeated, with bones clearly exhibiting signs of violent deaths. Many sites in Africa show similar patterns – so this is not limited to ancestral Europeans. Once again, in response to Ardrey’s position on the matter, recall that cultural and genetic selection are not mutually exclusive nor independent of each other; so his dichotomy there is both useless and obsolete.

With regards to current trends in demographics, I can only speculate. My first reaction is to see how long they last. The “superorganisms in the West” of which you ask might well be in the process of fragmentation as a result of the relaxation of the formerly intense group-selective pressures. However, as you know, in places like France, there is a substantial opposition to this. And in many other countries, there is a substantial reaction to these open immigration policies that they have had.

So, I don’t know that that is going to be viable long term, because a lot of the natives have been reacting to this quite strongly. And governments may be pressured to avoid this kind of thing, or at least, to limit the ethnic separatism that is practiced by some of these immigrant communities. For example, you know, I speak a little French – I’ve been to France several times – so I hope you don’t mind if we talk a little bit about the specific example of France.

I don’t think any French people, at least none that I know, and I know quite a few of them, object to the Muslims staying in France. They just insist that anyone, whether Muslim or not, has to adapt to French culture, French civilization, if one wants to live in France. You have to speak French, abide by the laws of France, and be a normal citizen of the republic. That’s what French people have told me. It is not that they don’t like Muslims per se, but that the kind of separatist impulses that some of these communities have are objectionable to French nationalism. That’s my understanding.

The idea that incorporating diverse cultural elements within one society is unfeasible, I don’t think that’s completely correct. To wit, if you look at European history, the Roman Empire lasted for over a thousand years, but I’m talking about the Western Empire. If you count the Eastern Empire, the so-called Byzantine Empire, that lasted – their collective existence might be close to two thousand years.

Those were empires that, although established by particular ethnic groups (the Romans), ruled over a very multicultural, diverse array of nations, for century after century. And they had a thriving civilization going. Now, were individual ethnic groups pursuing their own self-interest? Of course, they were. You know, everybody pursues their own self-interest, regardless of who it is. So, was there a certain amount of ethnic nepotism among all the groups involved?

Absolutely. That’s really what any evolutionist would expect. But does that mean that within an empire, you cannot coexist with these other groups for perhaps centuries, and perhaps even millennia? I would say the history of Europe would answer no, it is not impossible. You can have a multicultural empire that includes a diverse set of ethnicities, provided they are all guided by a common set of laws and principles. In that sense, I completely agree with the French attitude on this matter.

The Romans referred to this principle as Romanitas, or Romanness. And, the law was the law; and it was the law for everybody; and Roman law was strictly enforced. And after a few centuries, everyone in the Empire was granted Roman citizenship. At least, all free persons (not slaves) were granted Roman citizenship. And there were many emperors from Gallia, from Hispania, even some from North Africa that actually became Roman emperors. And they were all incorporated.

In fact, there was one semi-popular book I remember called, The Celtic Empire, in which the author made the case that Gallia, which is now France, became one of the dominant parts of the Roman Empire after the second century. It was a really critical part of the Empire. The Roman Empire wasn’t just Italians. So, I frankly don’t agree that ethnic homogeneity is absolutely necessary for a functional multinational society or state – what I’m calling an empire regardless of type of government. There have been plenty of examples where that has been made to work.

Another example, if you don’t want to think of Rome, is the so-called Inca empire, correctly called Tawantinsuyu, of the Andes in South America. They had a very multicultural empire. However, they had a brilliant road system, just like the Romans, and any province that rebelled or tried to practice separatism was crushed by the imperial army. Rebellion was not tolerated. You had to follow the rules, and you had to actually be part of that Andean state. And if not, there were dire consequences. So, a certain degree of conformity to social norm was enforced both by the Romans and by the Andean people. And they both were very good examples of multinational states, multi-ethnic states that lasted with some degree of stability, literally for centuries.

So, even though I’m an evolutionist and yes, genetic relatedness is an important factor in group selection, it is not the only factor. It is not necessarily the predominant one. And it is not strictly necessary, as some theorists have argued. The historical evidence indicates that nationalism, as we know it today, arose in the 19th century. It – that ideology of nationalism – was not even a coherent doctrine in Europe before that. I’m not saying there aren’t some instincts for ethnic nepotism. Those clearly exist in every human group; everywhere, you find ethnic nepotism.

But the kind of radical nationalism that Europeans came to accept in the 19th century is a recent historical invention, and it may be degraded over time as a result of these different social realities. I think this phenomenon was actually caused by the imperial expansion of the European powers; the fact that they incorporated ethnically different groups into their empires; often against the objection of the natives; but they incorporated these diverse groups into their societies.

So, for example, to use the case of France again, you have a lot of Algerians in France. The Algerians never invaded France. France invaded and conquered Algeria. That’s historical fact. So, we have Algerians now in France. Just understand – you asked for them, right? They did not voluntarily do this. And it’s not just like that in France, but in all the formerly imperial powers. They just incorporated these other people, created worldwide empires and global trade networks. So, that automatically incorporates these people within your society whether you acknowledge it or not.

So, now the question is how to deal with these diverse groups – and how to incorporate them as part of an orderly society. I believe that historical evidence indicates that that is possible.

But you cannot tolerate the separatists. This kind of multiculturalism philosophy that’s being preached nowadays, where everybody is just pursuing their own ethnic interests and there’s no loyalty to any kind of higher power, is not feasible in the longer term. But is it possible to create a true multicultural state where everybody engages in a cooperative network and everybody plays by the same rules? I think that historical evidence indicates that yes, it is possible. But you have to be firm. You can’t be weak. Only strong empires can do this.

GC: You challenge the idea that interindividual romantic relationships are primarily influenced by communication. You instead suggest that life history strategies in partners serve as the most fundamental force in shaping the outcome of their relationship. Could you come back at that issue?

AJF: Again, I tend to favor more fundamental and biological explanations to purely psychosocial and behavioral ones. “Communication” is only a proximate cause, whereas life history strategy better specifies the ultimate selective pressures that might have led to that behavior. Specifically, the need for biparental care in species with altricial offspring (such as our own) requires long-term bonding between fathers and mothers for the purpose of raising their offspring. It is that biological function that requires the communication. I am not downplaying the important role of supportive communication in maintaining human romantic relationships, but merely trying to explain why it is there.

GC: Thank you for your time for this enlightening conversation. Is there anything else that you would like to add?

AJF: I should point out that all the work that you have attributed to me was instead the work of many collaborative efforts over the years, and the role that my coauthors have played, as well as the massive contributions that they have made, should not be downplayed. I just wanted to acknowledge that before we finish. The citations provided present only a partial list of those collaborators. I think this was a very good interview, and I thank you for being honest, and as you said, not hostile. I don’t feel on the spot like you’re trying to catch me in something as some interviewers have tried to do in the past. And I appreciate your being open-minded.

The featured image shows, “Vercingetorix jette ses armes aux pieds de Jules César (ercingetorix throws down his arms at the feet of Julius Caesar),” by Lionel Royer, painted in 1899.

Romantic Nationalisms And Pop-Kultur: An Interview With Andrzej Waśko

This month we are greatly honored to present this interview with Professor Andrzej Waśko, the foremost authority on Romantic literature in Poland. He is the author several important books and currently serves as the advisor to Mr. Andrzej Duda, the President of Poland. Professor Waśko is here interviewed by Dr. Zbigniew Janowski, on behalf of the Postil.

Zbigniew Janowski (ZJ): Let me begin this conversation with a question about your recent article about the popular band Queen. You are a scholar of Polish Romanticism. You wrote your first major work, which received a national award, on Adam Mickiewicz (the prince of Polish Romantics) and your second on Polish conservative Romantic Zygmunt Krasinski. The role they played in Poland (along with the third major poet Juliusz Slowacki) may be compared to Byron, Shelley and Keats in England.

All of them belong to an epoch which existed two hundred years ago. The English rock group Queen was popular in the 1970s and 1980s. How come a professor of literature writes about about popular music?

Andrzej Waśko.

Andrzej Wasko (AW): These topics are not as far apart as they seem. The aesthetic revolution, called Romanticism, which broke out in Europe after the French Revolution, began earlier with the rehabilitation of popular songs and with the ballads of Goethe and Schiller; and later with Wordsworth and Coleridge, Mickiewicz and others.

A similar phenomenon occurred in the 1960s, in the genre of popular song on the “lower” level of culture. Joan Baez and other folk music performers began their careers with the same or similar folk ballads. At that time, the post-war generation, largely made up of university-educated workers’ children, was knocking on the gates of the middle class. These people needed their mythology and it was provided, at least to some extent, by popular music – Joan Baez, as already mentioned, Nobel Prize winner Bob Dylan, and many others.

Here, I see a certain analogy to the situation that took place in the 19th century. Romanticism gave a cultural identity to the bourgeois and popular masses that began to build modern nations on the ruins of class-based society. The history of pop music is the story of what happened to society in the second half of the 20th century. Besides, today there is a radio in every car. Popular songs are a topic that a literary historian can talk to a taxi driver about.

ZJ: Your last remark reminded me of Allan Bloom’s conversation with a taxi driver. This is what he wrote in The Closing of the American Mind (1987): “A few years ago I chatted with a taxi-driver in Atlanta who told me he had just gotten out of prison, where he served time for peddling dope. Happily, he had undergone ‘therapy.’ I asked him what kind. He responded, ‘All kinds—depth-psychology, transactional analysis,’ but what he liked best was ‘Gestalt.’ Some of the German ideas did not even require English words to become the language of the people. What an extraordinary thing it is that high-brow talk from what was the peak of Western intellectual life, in Germany, has become as natural as chewing gum on American streets. It indeed had its effect on this taxi-driver. He said that he had found his identity and learned to like himself. A generation earlier he would have found God and learned to despise himself as a sinner. The problem lay with his sense of self, not with original sin or devils inside him. We have here the peculiarly American way of digesting Continental despair. It is nihilism with a happy ending.”

One may draw many conclusions from Bloom. One such is that once high-brow ideas fall to a level of ordinary people, the inevitable result is nihilism. Let me invoke the lyrics of Queen:

Empty spaces.
What are we living for?
Abandoned places.
I guess we know the score.
On and on.
Does anybody know what we are looking for?
Another hero,
Another mindless crime
Behind the curtain.
(“The Show Must Go On”).

Queen’s song and Lennon’s “Imagine” – “no heaven, no hell” – can be said to repeat the basic building blocks of Existentialism, especially the ideas we find in Simone de Beauvoir and Sartre. De Beauvoir and Sartre considered the world without God to be a reason to rejoice. Camus, on the other hand, was deeply troubled by it; he understood that in such a world the only jurisdiction of philosophy is suicide. This is not different from what we find in Queen: “does anybody know what we are looking for?” Are these songs existentialist philosophy of the Parisian cafes turned nihilistic?

AW: The fact that the songs you quote and probably many others show traces of the existential philosophy of Parisian gurus, such as Sartre and Camus, seems very likely to me. Certainly, Lennon welcomes the vision of an axiological void and proclaims it as “good news,” just like Sartre.

Both the philosopher and the ex-Beatle call for a revolution, each in their own way. In practice, however, Lennon’s way turns out to be more effective, because his song is pretty, it reaches the masses and moves their emotions. But the lesson Lennon gives his followers leads to nihilism – in a world where there is nothing to die for – “nothing to kill or die for” – there is nothing to live for.

This was understood by Camus and I think also Freddie Mercury, whose lyrics, on the contrary, are not cheerful. “What are we living for?” – in a world devoid of essence, without absolute values and absolute norms. Of course, this is also existentialism for the people. But at the same time it is a lamentation over a world ruled by nihilism.

Taxi drivers I speak with in Poland are more likely to lament and never say anything about psychology, which is otherwise a very fashionable field at universities in Poland. Rather, it is the establishment that thinks like the Atlanta taxi driver Bloom writes about. This is pure and self-conscious nihilism – but it is rather rife among teachers and students at universities.

ZJ: You made a connection between the aesthetic revolution of Romanticism and the post-French revolutionary world. In 1833, Benjamin Disraeli wrote in his Diary: “My mind is a continental mind… It is a revolutionary mind.” What Disraeli is referring to is the influence Romanticism had on him. What made Romanticism such a powerful social force?

Second, for all the greatness and beauty of Romantic poetry, Romanticism turned out to become a political outlook which shuttered the old order no less than the French Revolution. Is there a connection between the slogans of the Revolution – equality in particular – and the Romantic exaltation of self-consciousness as the source of truth and a fountainhead of artistic creativity?

AW: What made Romanticism a social force was certainly the democratization of the language of literature and art, an example of which is the turn to ballads. In his Preface to the Lyrical Ballads, Wordsworth tells us that poetry should speak the language that people actually use in their lives. The explanation lies in the saturation of art with emotions. Wordsworth and Coleridge talk about this in the Preface as well. This is the hallmark of Romantic literature – unlike the classics, the speaking subject in romantic poetry is always in a state of some emotional agitation, a mood he then communicates to his audience.

This is simple, and pop culture of the 20th century has similar features – it expresses the emotions and infects its audience. And contemporary people living in an extremely rationalized world, living in Le Corbusier’s “machines for living,” do not become machines – on the contrary, they want to react to the coldness of social institutions in which they find themselves. They want to cry or feel euphoric. They want to feel “like gods,” or lose themselves in a “great whole” – a service provided by, along with drugs, ecstatic music. In this regard, pop music of the second half of the 20th century uses some elements of Romanticism in an intensified and simplified form.

Your second question concerns individual self-realization and creation, which are inventions of literary Romanticism. Based on idealistic German philosophy, Romanticism builds the concept of the subject as creator – of poetry (from the Greek poiesis – creation), but also a creator of various geniuses. Napoleon changed the world thanks to his genius. Byron changed the world thanks to his genius, too. It’s a status of the self in society and in politics. It is a challenge for everyone, including me. Perhaps this is what Disraeli thought.

ZJ: Should we take the idea of genius to mean a way of democratization of politics as well? I do not mean democratization in the sense of universal suffrage and an electoral system; but in the sense of opening the public and political realm to people who in the past could never see themselves as social or political leaders. Being a genius became a form of political passport, if you will. It provided a new form of socio-political legitimacy. Poets became national bards, unelected national leaders.

AW: Yes, both the cults of genius artists (“prophets”) and the cults of charismatic political leaders have something to do with democratization in the sense you suggested. The genius embodies the characteristics of the community that recognizes him as its representative, as the medium of its thoughts and feelings, as the embodiment of the aspirations and goals it pursues. As Rzewuski put it: “There is a sympathetic bond between a genius and his people.”

ZJ: You mentioned Byron, an artist, who saw himself as having a social, political message. Let me quote here a stanza from Childe Harold:

Hereditary bondsmen! know ye not
Who would be free themselves must strike the blow?
By their right arms the conquest must be wrought?
Will Gaul or Muscovite redress ye? no!
True, they may lay your proud despoilers low,
But not for you will Freedom's altars flame.
Shades of the Helots! triumph o'er your foe!
Greece! change thy lords, thy state is still the same;
Thy glorious day is o'er, but not thine years of shame.

This is his message to the Greeks, calling on them to rekindle past greatness, to shake off the yoke of the Turkish oppression. This kind of message, formulated by poets, seems to be common for the Romantic period. We find it also in Juliusz Slowacki’s Agamemnon’s Tomb.

Could one say – call it a wild guess, if you want – that Romanticism created a path to a new political reality, wherein artistic geniuses (poets, writers, painters) but also all kinds of political charlatans, madmen and social reformers could call on a nation, or the world, to action? First it was done under the banner of liberation (as in Greece), or unification (as in Italy, or Germany), and later, in the 20th century, as a call to a regeneration of national spirit (as in Hitler’s Germany and Mussolini’s Italy). Now, in the 21st century, we hear an echo of national slogans: “Great China,” “Making America Great Again,” “Poland – A Great Project” (the name of an annual conference), and so many others.

Politics, before the American and French Revolutions, was a domain of one class, the upper class. But 19th century Romanticism changed it.

AW: Yes, Romanticism paved the way for charlatans as well; it gave them a certain role model. But you cannot blame the Romantics for the actions of charlatans like Hitler or Mussolini, who adopted the dress of geniuses. Otherwise, you could then also accuse Rubens or Rembrandt of paving the way for picture forgers. Morally and politically, everyone is responsible for himself.

Also, we should not toss together all political slogans designed to mobilize supporters with references to the greatness of the nation or the greatness of some future project. This is just commonplace in the politics of our times. Ordinary people want to feel that they are participating in some great collective endeavor. And PR specialists give it the form of slogans. I do not see anything wrong with that, although of course in totalitarian regimes it has a different dimension and can be terrible. But don’t overdo your concerns, remembering what the difference is between the present conditions and the regimes of the kind we lived in before 1989.

ZJ: One often links Romanticism with nationalism. There is a good reason to accept the assumption that the latter sprang from the former. When you read books about Romanticism, you come across a number of terms or expressions that their authors use to characterize Romanticism. Here is a handful: genius (that is, someone who defies rules by his untrammeled will), individual spirit, nation, mythological history of a people, authenticity, creative self-expression, self-assertion, the worship of heroes, and contempt for reason.

The genius of Romantic poets notwithstanding, reading their exaltation one gets the impression that this form of emotional exhibitionism, if you want, could happen only among people who have lost their minds, who rejected Reason, as they did. They were the first ones to believe that they can create nations, a people’s soul. As Herder once wrote, “A poet is a creator of a people; he gives them a world to contemplate; he holds its soul in his hand.”

Add messianism to this, which is a consequence of such a belief, and you have a fuller picture – we no longer deal with an individual genius who has risen above others but a nation which believes – rightly or wrongly – that it has a mission, that it has been given a special task to save others, or save even a civilization itself. Since there are no clear rational criteria for judging reality, the political realm must, it seems, become an “irrational” domain operated by individuals – leaders, if you will – who believe that they can lead the nation. As it happens, sometimes things went very wrong. In view of this, could you say a few words about the connection between Romanticism and nationalism.

AW: First, Herder’s words are the words of a literary critic, who is referring not so much to the times of his own epoch, but to the beginnings of civilization. “Philosophers are the children of civilization, but the poets are its fathers” – this is how what he says should be understood. The original language of humanity was, according to Herder, poetic language. Prose and the attitude to the world based on reasoning came later – Homer preceded the birth of philosophy in Greece.

The Romanticism of the early nineteenth century was an apology for poetry understood as the original path of cognition, earlier than philosophy and science. You can partly agree that something like creative imagination actually exists and at times helps to solve some problems that seem unsolvable at first glance.

A feature of political Romanticism, as Carl Schmitt understood it, was the transfer of certain aesthetic rules and preferences to the field of policy thinking. If there is one language and one German literature, there should also be one German state. Genius can work in different fields. Thus, a brilliant poet plays a role within his own national community, etc. Under Byron’s influence, in the first half of the 19th century, extreme (that is, pre-20th-century existentialism) individualism wen hand-in-hand with dandyism, with mal du siècle, boredom (ennui), and the search for strong impressions.

All of this goes beyond nationalism; and all of it can be an object of criticism – and has been repeatedly criticized from the point of view of reason. But the Romantics were right in that man is not (and never will be) a fully rational being. If the process of modernization, which began in the West in the 17th century, is identified (as Max Weber would have it) with the process of rationalization of social life, Romanticism is an expression of rebellion against this rationalization, a rebellion rooted in the irrational characteristics of human nature. And it did not end in the 19th century. In the 1960s, it found expression in popular culture.

ZJ: Isaiah Berlin, in a series of articles on Romanticism, offered a number of insights that can explain why the currents hidden in Romanticism became pernicious.

One could distinguish several layers which created conditions that later led to the horrors of the 20th century, beginning with the sense of humiliation that stems from another nation’s cultural superiority. Such is the case of Germany vis-à-vis France, and the disruption of the old way of life, as happened in Russia under Peter the Great and, to a lesser degree, in Frederick the Great’s Prussia.

The old class becomes displaced and psychologically unfit, and creates a new synthesis, a new vision or ideology that explains and justifies resistance to forces working against the convictions and ways of life of the old class.

Finally, when a nation is at one with other forces, such as race and religion, or class and nation, we have all the conditions that can turn into a political force represented by the State. “One form of these ideas was the new image of the artist,” writes Berlin, “raised above other men not only by his genius but by his heroic readiness to live and die for the sacred vision within him… It took a more sinister form in the worship of the leader, the creator of a new social order as a work of art, the leader who molds men as the composer molds sounds and the painter colours.”

Heine, as Berlin explains, foresaw the future: “these ideologically intoxicated barbarians would turn Europe into a desert,” writes Berlin, quoting Heine, “restrained neither by fear nor greed… like early Christians, whom neither physical torture nor physical pleasure could break.”

To be sure, the legacy of Romanticism was not as morbid among the English, French, Russians or Poles as it was among the Germans. However, in the case of the Poles, and perhaps Russians, Romanticism survived as the worship of poets as national bards, men who — because of later communist oppression – filled a political void. (Mickiewicz and Slowacki, for example, are buried alongside Polish kings at Wawel Castle in Krakow). Now that Poland is a free country, is there as much room for the adoration of poets as there was before?

Walenty Wańkowicz, “Portrait of Adam Mickiewicz,” ca. 1827-1828.

AW: Isaiah Berlin, as well as other well-known analysts of nationalism in English-speaking countries – Hans Kohn, Ernest Gelner, Eric Hobsbawm, Zygmunt Bauman – built the following historical sequence: romanticism – nationalism – Hitler.

All these thinkers had roots in Central Europe and brought their trauma to Anglo-American sociology from Central and Eastern Europe. It was a trauma of the persecution of Jews that ended in the Holocaust.

A similar interpretation was applied after World War II by the Communists in the German Democratic Republic. Because the roots of Nazism were said to be rooted in German Romanticism, in Jena, where the “Romantische Schule” was born, the Communists demolished part of the historic old town with the old buildings of the university and erected a gruesome modernist tower in its place, where they built a new communist university to break away from the traditions of Fichte and Novalis.

In reality, this was all much more complicated. In Poland, for example, there was a sharp conflict between the ideology of modern nationalism, represented by Roman Dmowski, and the Romantic tradition, which this nationalist and social Darwinist openly fought in his writings.

The Nazis, with whom, moreover, Polish nationalism had nothing in common, during the occupation fought fiercely against the memory of Polish culture, led by Chopin’s music and Mickiewicz’s poetry, whose monument in Krakow was demolished in August 1940. How do these facts reconcile with the theory of Romantic sources of nationalism and Nazism?

Nazis toppling monument of the Romantic poet, Adam Mickiewicz, in Krakow, August 17, 1940.

The claim that Romantic writers (but not only Romantic ones) contributed to the awakening of “nationalism,” or simply national consciousness among Lithuanians, Ukrainians, Serbs and Croats, seems obviously true. Pushkin, who wrote anti-Polish poems after the Russians suppressed the November Uprising in 1831, could also be called a Russian nationalist. So what?

The obsessive tracking down of nationalism leads only to the belief that communism was better in Eastern Europe, “threatened by nationalism.”
However, it is also true that Polish literature of the 19th century, including Romantic literature in the first place, was the main bridge leading to the assimilation of the Jewish intelligentsia in Poland.

The poetry of the Romantics, both great and smaller but equally popular, was something that could fascinate in Polish culture and which could be relatively easy to accept, along with language, regardless of any other differences. Therefore, educated Jews got Polonized in the nineteenth-century; and among writers and historians of Poland of the next century we have many of them.

ZJ: The post French Revolution world created two categories: Liberalism and Conservatism. In his essay on Alfred de Vigny, sometimes referred to as, “On Conservative and Liberal Poets” (1838), John Stuart Mill makes a list of characteristics of Conservative and Liberal literature. One of the functions of Liberal poets or writers is, as Mill states, “to lay open morbid anatomy of human nature,” which is “contrary to good taste always.”

In short, Liberalism created a new realm of literary possibilities, where vices can no longer be swept under the rug, treated as vices, but as ingredients of human nature, which should not shock us. In fact, we should find enjoyment in reading about characters who embody these vices.

What comes to mind as examples supporting Mill’s interpretation are writers such as, Balzac, Zola and Dostoevsky; but above all Ibsen; his A Doll’s House, where “sweet hypocrisy” is exposed for what it is. Yet Nora, who breaks social and moral norms, is by far a more sympathetic character than her husband, and as much as we may not like her decision. But it is impossible to feel sympathy toward her husband. Anna Karenina is another great example. And, let’s remember, Tolstoy came to regret writing it.

If Mill is right with respect to what constitutes the elements of Conservative and Liberal literature, is the liberal imagination an indisputable winner in this literary contest? Good literature is no longer a teacher of virtues and vices, has no unambiguous moral message; it is not supposed to give us moral warnings.

AW: The moral message, apart from moving emotions and satisfying the taste, was mandatory for a classical poet, of the type that reigned in all our literatures, before Jean-Jacques Rousseau, although he himself was not a poet and his La Nouvelle Heloise has a built-in moral core. Rousseau paved the way for “liberal poets,” because he recognized that it is not the individual who is morally responsible for evil. Rather, evil comes from a society corrupted by civilization. Byron’s heroes (and this is his influence), who commit crimes, are at the same time victims of the existing social order and the embodiment of interpersonal relations in this system.

Similarly, we can sympathize with Nora and Anna Karenina. It is Rousseau as a philosopher who is responsible for this, and since he is also one of the founders of liberalism, Mill’s opinion makes some sense. But literary currents are not simple equivalents of modern political ideologies. Dostoyevsky with his Demons is probably a conservative writer. But was Chateaubriand conservative or liberal? And Mickiewicz?

ZJ: Thanks to the works of Jacob Talmon (Romanticism and Revolt, 1967; Political Messianism: The Romantic Phase, 1960), of Sir Kenneth Clark (The Romantic Rebellion, where he discusses art), and of later writers such as, Adam Zamoyski (Holy Madness: Romantics, Patriots, and Revolutionaries, 1776-1871), we can form a general impression of how Romanticism influenced the way 19th century man thought. However, if you want to pinpoint what exactly Romanticism contributed to political thought, we are unlikely to have a clear answer.

However, Mill’s biographer, Nicholas Capaldi, suggested that the roots of Mill’s argument for freedom of speech can be traced to the Romantic concept of imagination, without which an argument such as this could hardly be made: why should I allow you to say something I disagree with, unless I believe that your soul, your self, can express a truth, something which reason alone – common to us and praised by Enlightenment thinkers – cannot.

Here is what Capaldi says:

“Mill will remind us that Coleridge is the English bearer of the continental tradition, and especially of German Romanticism… More specifically, Mill will argue that modern liberal culture, as best exemplified in England, cannot be adequately explained and defended except with the resources of Romantic continental thought… The French Revolution of 1789 had momentous symbolic significance for liberals everywhere. It became the symbol of the overthrow of feudalism and the dawn of a new day of freedom. Liberals as well as conservatives in Britain were later horrified by the excesses of the revolution, but the destruction of feudal privilege was looked upon as a necessary prerequisite for a truly free and responsible society.

“The stress on imagination, as opposed to intellect, is a familiar Romantic theme. It reflects the nineteenth-century rejection of the eighteenth-century’s narrow rationalism… The first consequence of this view of the primacy of imagination is the recognition that ultimate values are apprehended through imagination… One of the reasons Mill will be so adamant about opposing censorship and encouraging debate is that it is only in the imaginative re-creation, the rehashing, of the arguments that we come to understand truly the meaning of ultimate values and to make that meaning a vital part of who we are.”

Is there anything else in the realm of political ideas that belongs in the Romantic tool-box?

AW: Creative imagination as a tool for learning about the world is undoubtedly a hallmark of romantic trends all over Europe, but these trends were very diverse, and the ways of understanding them were different. If the German readings influenced Coleridge, as Professor Capaldi reminds us, it must be remembered that earlier German translations of Edmund Burke’s On the Revolution in France inspired the Schlegel brothers and their entire generation in Germany. Thus, the exchange between England and the Continent was mutual. Liberalism is older than the Romanticism, as is republicanism, which is important to Poles. So, there were liberal and conservative romantics, and the great Polish romantic, Juliusz Słowacki, described himself as “republican in spirit.”

Ivan Trush, “A Portrait of Juliusz Slowacki,” ca. 1880.

Hence Mill’s brilliant thought that the genesis of the idea of freedom of speech must be the Romantic idea of imagination, may be true in some cases, but historically speaking not at all. In short, the specific influence of Romanticism on the understanding of politics may consist in giving politics an eschatological dimension (messianism), in referring to pre-philosophical national traditions as an expression of the community spirit, in the observation that the poet has a special type of power – over the work he creates and over their recipients – and that authority should have such a character in general, and that the poets thus should be the charismatic leaders of the nation.

Let me add that in the 19th century the cult of poets (Mickiewicz, Słowacki, Krasiński) gained political significance in Poland; and in the 20th century, in popular culture, we are dealing with something analogous, when, for example, Bono from the band U2 speaks about politics, and all world agencies keep repeating what he utters.

Ary Scheffer, “Portrait of Zygmunt Krasiński,” 1850.

ZJ: Nihilism which we’ve mentioned was not the only social worry of the second half of the 20th century. One can argue that hedonism is as pernicious as nihilism. I would like to invoke another song by Queen, “I Want It All;”

I’m a man with a one track mind,
So much to do in one life time (people do you hear me)
Not a man for compromise and where’s and why’s and living lies
So I’m living it all, yes I’m living it all,
And I’m giving it all, and I’m giving it all,
It ain’t much I’m asking, if you want the truth,
Here’s to the future, hear the cry of youth,
I want it all, I want it all, I want it all, and I want it now,
I want it all, I want it all, I want it all, and I want it now.

Each time I hear it, I think that this song is the utmost expression of hedonism, which is a product of an infantile mind. Only children want it all and want it now. It is their perception of time which makes them want to satisfy their wants and needs right away. They want immediate gratification. Adults know that you can’t have it now. But there are more serious problems that go beyond the song. First, immediate gratification of all desires would be deadly for moral discipline. Liberalism is the only political philosophy that tells us that we have a right to satisfy our wants.
Would you agree that this kind of thinking – nihilism mixed with hedonism – is what our world today is made up of.

AW: I don’t know if this song is so clearly about a hedonistic attitude. Your question about modern hedonism is much more serious. Westerners, when they believed in God, wanted the salvation of their souls – eternal life beyond this world. Then, under the influence of humanism and the Enlightenment, happiness became their goal. Happiness on earth, not in the afterlife. But that happiness did not have to be immediate; it could be the achievement of some ambitious goal or perfection (per aspera ad astra), or the pursuit of perfection itself. In the end, happiness was equated with pleasure, which was independently invented by the Marquis de Sade and 19th-century Liberals. It appealed to simple people, because pleasure is not some abstract ideal, but something concrete, sensually experimental. And why shouldn’t we experience it too, here and now?

This ethical turn, which took place in the West in the 19th century, seems to be something permanently present in people’s attitudes to life today. In the second half of the 20th century, it coincided with the triumph of technology and capitalism, which turned out to be capable of producing an inexhaustible amount of consumer goods; that is, those that both satisfy our needs and provide us pleasure. Since constant enjoyment has become easy and readily available for all, a new hedonism has indeed spread in the society of “well-being.” It is based on the pursuit of immediate satisfaction of our whims. And after satisfying them, new needs appear, which are also immediately satisfied, and so on.

Mandeville noted, as early as the 18th century, that people who are accustomed to luxury buy more things that, objectively speaking, they could live without. In this way, which may not be beneficial to themselves in the long run, they nevertheless make money for the craftsmen and merchants, who supply them with these luxuries.

So, the need for pleasure drives the economy to work. The capitalism of our time creates these artificial needs in people in a systemic way, stimulating them through advertising, and by presenting the model of a human being present in pop culture, whose success lies in the fact that he has everything, here and now.

The contemporary ideal image, spread in commercials, in television series about the lives of millionaires, in photo essays about celebrities, is therefore the image of a hedonist – an ideal, i.e., the ever-insatiable consumer. So, hedonism drives sales – that is, the entire economy – and thus promotes it.

The problem is that all civilizations of the past that fell into this trap collapsed. While we can make our toys endlessly, we are not in danger of collapsing because of the wear and tear of our accumulated goods – waste was condemned by moralistic people since antiquity, but that doesn’t help.

The process of ceaselessly satisfying an appetite that is continuously, artificially stimulated, is destructive in itself. We need stronger and stronger stimuli, bigger and bigger doses of new stimulants. And in the end, they kill us – like the drugs that have killed a legion of stars of modern pop culture.

The biggest problem of any civilization, at some point, ceases to be the struggle with nature and hostile tribes, and it becomes the need to fight our own weaknesses, which come to us as a result of our own success. We are safe, rich; we have free time – and we don’t know what to do with all of this. This is when the self-destructive process begins. Giambattista Vico already knew that.

ZJ: Let me go back to what you said about the democratization of language, and that the success of Romanticism lies in using the language people use and emotions that they feel. As always, what at the beginning sounds like a well-intentioned idea, later can have unintended consequences. We talked about John Lennon and Queen, nihilism, and hedonism. One could still argue that they translated high-brow philosophical ideas into language that the ordinary people could understand as their own. Neither Lennon nor Queen are guilty; they just “expressed,” in the form of popular music, what philosophers said decades earlier.

Now, 50-60 years later, it is not Romanticism or Existentialism which stand behind the new trends in music. It is the naked, ugly reality of the street, to which once high-brow philosophy led society. In America it is called rap. Rap spread everywhere like a tsunami. It started as a form of expression of the feelings – or more likely resentment – of the destitute, undereducated Black segment of American population. However, because of its vulgarity and outright racism it is listened, for the most part, by Blacks, and it terrifies most of the Whites. Yet the liberal media bow to it.

One of the Founding Fathers of rap, JZ, is a musical icon, interviewed on National Public Radio and television in the US. University professors organize courses about JZ. When you listen to his public pronouncements you get the feeling that rap is not music but a form of mental imprisonment of someone who never grew up. Do you have an explanation as to what happened and why? Is rap the last phase of the Romantic rebellion led by adult children, like JZ?

AW: Paradoxically, I agree with this last sentence, at least to a certain extent. Yes, I can see that music videos of this type tend to be soft pornography and praise the lives of gangsters – obviously I’m not attracted to the stupidity of it all. There are also nobler forms of this music; but I do not follow or analyze them either. Both rap and hip-hop are artistic styles with their own rules and structure. I can imagine a masterpiece in this genre, although I cannot name it. Perhaps it is because of my own ignorance, or perhaps a rap-style masterpiece has never been created and will never be.

But since rap exists as a separate style – the existence of outstanding songs of this type is also possible and probable. In Poland, where all Anglo-American musical styles are imitated, the band Kaliber 44 enjoyed a short-lived fame some time ago, whose young soloist was considered a genius; but his life was short, because he killed himself jumping, out of a window under the influence of drugs.

This is hard to approve of in any way, but the interpretation you are proposing here also seems possible. Rap is a peculiar rhythm that is based on the intonation of individual sentences and crossed with relatively regular versification. The content of the rapper’s monologue is important; the music has a secondary role; it accompanies the recitation of the text and emphasizes its meaning. These are features that are well known from the folklore of bygone eras.

Thus, the romantic theory of nature poetry, which is born spontaneously among simple people, lacking knowledge of the conventions and rules of official art, fits it. Rap with its style and place of birth (in the dangerous neighborhoods of New York) fits well with this romantic theory.

Besides (probably) rap performers cannot be suspected of illustrating Sartre’s theses. So, maybe this is not a simplified adaptation of high culture, but a real inflow from below – the music of the roots? On the other hand, it is also not ordinary folklore, because in the process of producing recordings, the simplicity of style and the primitiveness of picture-suggestions are combined with technical and technological refinement.

ZJ: Going back to your remark about the use of ordinary language by the Romantics. Is this the beginning of the process which led to the birth of what we call “popular culture” – as opposed to High Culture? Today no one uses the distinction between High and Low/popular culture. The educational system in Western countries is structured in a way that what belonged to the Treasure of Western Culture or Kultur, is no longer taught. It is at best tolerated. The last attempt at defending High Culture was probably T.S. Eliot’s Notes Towards the Definition of Culture (1959). Do you see where we are today as a result and the end of cultural mutation of Romanticism?

AW: I prefer to think of Romanticism and pop-culture, and, more precisely, of the specific elements of these different, certainly broad and difficult to define phenomena, not as mutations, but as cultural modalities. In similar cultural phenomena, the actualization of similar potentials, constantly inherent in human nature, takes place. Cultural updates are historical and the potentialities of nature’s people are unchanged.

ZJ: Thank you Professor Wasko for this wonderful interview.

Andrzej Waśko is professor of Polish Literature at the Jagiellonian University, Krakow. He is the author of Romantic Sarmatism, History According to Poets, Zygmunt Krasinski, Democracy Without Roots, Outside the System, and On Literary Education. The former Vice-Minister of Education, he is curretnly the editor-in-chief of the conservative bimonthly magazine Arcana and is presently Adviser to Polish President Andrzej Duda.

The image shows, “Sielanka (An Idyll),” by Józef Chełmoński, painted in 1885.

War In The Vendée: Why It Was Genocide

This month we are so very honored to present this interview with Monsieur Jacques Villemain, the highly regarded French jurist and diplomat. His recent and magisterial work on the war in the Vendée is the subject of this interview, which is conducted by Christophe Geffroy of La Nef.

Christophe Geffroy (CG): In 2017, you published a book entitled, Vendée 1793-1794. Crimes de guerre? Crimes contre l’humanité ? Génocide ? Une étude juridique (The Vendée 1793-1794. War Crime? Crimes Against Humanity? Genocide? A Legal Study), in which you seek to demonstrate that these three types of crimes were indeed committed in the Vendée by the troops of the Convention. Why write a new book on this subject today? What is particularly important about this question?

Jacques Villemain (JV): After establishing the legal qualification of the crime, it must be explained. How could a French revolution that began in 1789 on the pretext of proclaiming the rights of man and of the citizen, in just four years managed to commit, and in the very name of these ideals, these mass crimes? This is the first part.

But the main part of the book is devoted to the reasons which prevent us in France to look this past in the face – when Reynald Secher published his thesis on “the Franco-French genocide” in 1986, it created a beautiful scandal! This is because the University, at least the university sector dedicated to the history of the French Revolution, has been from the beginning (1891) organized solely for the celebration of the Revolution. Originally it was about producing a doxa legitimizing the republican regime, which was at that still contested in France.

The revolution was a “bloc” to use Clemenceau’s famous phrase, there was no question of admitting that there could be abuses and crimes. The Vendeans were criminals, traitors, debris of a bygone past, and the Terror was absolved in the name of “circumstances.” We are not there anymore. The very half-hearted celebration of the Bicentenary in 1989 clearly showed that there had been several phases in the Revolution, and that we could hardly celebrate the period 1789-1792 (and especially not all of 1792), that is, in effect, the “liberal” period, that of the affirmation of human rights. These rights were the great victim of the period that followed, and in the massacres of September (1792) to at least until 9 Thermidor (1794). The Vendée genocide falls within this interval.

Now that the Republic is no longer contested in France, we can make distinctions and exercise our right to inventory the revolutionary period, which includes the “good,” the “less good,” and the “totally criminal.” This the radical Left does not admit, and it is entrenched in the University, that high place which Marcel Gauchet termed as “cultural leftism,” and which is a bunker all the more comfortable since it has no hold on reality (apart from training history and geography teachers – disaster subject matters in a National Education which is itself not in great shape).

University historians, who specialize in the revolutionary period, and who are mostly radical left activists, can thus say just about anything, none of it having the slightest practical importance. A number of their outright Communist works (say from 1920-1989) cannot be read without a smile today, and their current fallacies are no less ridiculous.

I try to continue what Reynald Secher showed earlier, but by as a legal demonstration, to show that one can acknowledge this genocide without calling for “repentance,” without “pulling down the statues,” and without hatred and contempt for our national history.

CG: You insist on the legal character of the concept of genocide, thereby distinguishing yourself from a historical or social analysis. How important is the legal character of the concept of genocide in such an investigation?

JV: First of all, the notion of genocide is an exclusively legal concept. It was conceived for the sole purpose of the penal repression of a crime which, until the Shoah, had no name, but whose concept was recognized by international custom – this “human right” was expressly invoked as a basis by the UN Convention of 1948 which defines it.

Historians and social scientists, committed to denying the genocide thesis, ignore it cleverly if not willfully. Some forge their own concept of genocide in order to then be able to demonstrate that it excludes the Vendée case – their demonstration is in their basic assumptions. We even see aberrations by historians claiming that “extermination” in the eighteenth century does not mean “killing everyone” as today, which is of course denied as much by the dictionary of the French Academy (1762 edition) as by the use made of the word, for example in Racine or La Fontaine – so already a century before the facts.

I devote an entire chapter to dismantling the fallacies of historians denying the Vendée genocide, more than one of which oscillates in practice between obvious bad faith and being completely ridiculous. Thus, for example, François Furet, could only have a career outside the University which, in the field of studies pertaining to the revolutionary period, we can point out, is completely “hogged” by the Robespierrists. The “Social Sciences,” as you say, have become a combat sport of the radical left where they engage in powerful relay races.

Today, for example, it is Jean-Luc Mélenchon, who calls himself Robespierriste, and it is the LFI (the left wing political party La France insoumise, Unbowed France) which is trying to have a “Rue Robespierre” created in Paris (for the moment there is only one metro station called, “Robespierre” in the commune of Montreuil, historically communist, which gave it this name in the euphoria of the Popular Front in 1936).

Robespierre remains a symbol of social revolution and of the legitimization of violence in politics – to say that he was involved in the commission of genocide is obviously blasphemy for a whole politico-university fringe which supports the “Right to blaspheme” but only on the condition rthat said right spares his convictions.

CG: So, there is a precise and universally recognized definition of genocide, to clarify the debate?

JV: Yes. It is stated in the UN Convention “On the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide” (1948), as interpreted in the 1990s by the case law of the courts established by the same UN to judge genocides in ex -Yugoslavia (Srebrenica), in Rwanda; then with its assistance in Cambodia (genocides of the Khmer Rouge); and finally by the International Criminal Court.

This is the basis of my analysis. Because if the notion of “genocide” is from the 20th century, the reality of the fact (systematically massacring a whole “stable and permanent human group” by targeting it “as such”) was well recognized as criminal in the 18th century. Such a thing was condemned without having the word “genocide” to designate it. But it was precisely at this time that its equivalents appeared, used by committed revolutionaries, and in no way favorable to the Vendéens. It was Joseph Lequinio who, 1794, spoke of “depopulation” (because the word “depopulation” could evoke an involuntary phenomenon). And, in 1797, Gracchus Babeuf, who is often taken for one of the first Communists, forged the adjective “populicide” which has exactly the same etymology as “genocide.”

What the evolution of law and especially of the jurisprudence of the twentieth century brings us is the way of analyzing criminal intent in the context of mass crimes. In these cases, we cannot reason as in the matter of individual criminality, because in mass crimes it is not an individual who kills another, but a collective of criminals who attack a collective of victims – the first do not know the latter and vice versa. Hitler or Himmler certainly could not have been individually linked to any of the 6 million Jews they killed, and yet they are very well responsible for these crimes.

How to establish mass crime? This is the subject that the Nuremberg Tribunal focused on, followed by the international criminal tribunals created by the UN to try mass crimes (crimes against humanity and genocide) committed in the former Yugoslavia and in Rwanda, then the courts set up in Cambodia with the support of the UN to try the crimes of the Khmer Rouge.

It is this experience, I was going to say this criminological know-how which, as such, is not attached to a particular period, that I use to reason about the atrocities committed in the Vendée – and which I demonstrate were indeed genocide.

CG: What is the difference between genocide and crimes against humanity?

JV: It was especially during the Nuremberg Trials that we became aware of the difference. Admittedly the Nazis had exterminated en masse Russians, Poles and Ukrainians, but that was to free up a “living space” for the future Reich and one would then have preserved these populations to reduce them to bondage for the Reich’s profit. There was no general extermination plan or principle against these people, even though there were undeniable mass killings. On the contrary, the Jews were targeted in general and absolute terms and “as such,” their very existence being intolerable; and in principle not a single one should have survived, if the Nazis had achieved their ends.

The difference between the two exterminations was a difference in nature and not just in degree. This is why no sooner had the Nuremberg Tribunal closed its doors than the UN launched the work of drafting what would become the 1948 convention which made “genocide” a crime distinct from other “crimes against” humanity, because it is not the same criminal intent.

A crime against humanity involves the general context of a widespread or systematic attack against a civilian population, but not necessarily with the aim of exterminating it entirely “as such.” For example, there is no doubt today that the reduction to slavery of human groups constitutes a crime against humanity; but by hypothesis, when we want to reduce people to slavery, we do not want to kill them since then we could no longer make them work – qualifying the slave trade as genocide on the grounds that it caused a very large number of deaths is not supported.

The generalized massacre of American Indians is not a genocide either – besides the fact that the causes are much more involuntary (spread of European diseases such as smallpox to which these populations had no immunity) than premeditated, the goal was not to exterminate them but to steal most of their land (and for the rest they would be confined to “reserves”). We are quite clearly within “crime against humanity” but not within “genocide.”

On the contrary, when it comes to the Jews, the Nazis wanted them to disappear from the face of the earth as some kind of pollution of the human species.

The Convention also thought that the very existence of the Vendeans was incompatible with that of the France they wanted to build; and we find, for example, revolutionary authorities who speak of the “crime of their existence” – the crime of the Vendeans was to exist. The consequence is extermination, as complete as possible – genocide.

CG: The texts of the Convention, of the Representatives on mission, of the Committee of Public Safety as well as of the generals that you quote are often chilling with cynicism in their will to exterminate. How do you explain that the will for such a crime was possible and shared by so many?

JV: I think one could say, cynicism and/or blindness. The Vendée uprising asked revolutionaries this unbearable question: how can a notable part of the people rise up against them? They claimed that they were acting in the name of the people and for their happiness! Yet August 10, 1792 was only the coup d’état of a small minority and the Convention was elected in a climate of terror (90% abstentions). The Vendée uprising sent this government back to its imposture, which it neither wanted nor could recognize or understand.

Bertrand Barère, of the Committee of Public Safety, spoke of “the inexplicable Vendée” before the Convention. The revolutionary still had an explanation in which he either believed (blindly), or which he held on to because it was convenient (cynicism) – that the Vendeans had been brutalized, degenerated by centuries of clerical and nobiliary domination. “It is out of the principle of humanity that I purge the earth of these monsters,” Jean-Baptiste Carrier said in Nantes. Here by “humanity” is meant “progress” and “monsters” literally designates “abnormal.” There is no other choice but to eradicate this sub-humanity for the happiness of true Humanity, that of the future.

The Convention members spoke of the Vendeans as the Nazis came to speak of the Jews – “the accursed race,” “the execrable race,” “to be exterminated to the last,” etc. are all recurring terms in their rhetoric. The genocidal logic is also, and perhaps first, there. This will is then relayed by a flawless “chain of command:” this concept and that of a “joint criminal enterprise,” which is the culmination of the experience of the Nuremberg Tribunal on “Criminal Organizations” (like the SS, for example), are essential to the demonstration that there was indeed genocide.

It should be understood that the genocidal will did not form overnight. François Furet spoke about the policy of the Convention in the Vendée of an “election of hatred” – it is a gradual process. At the beginning (March 1793) the Parisian revolutionaries believed in a simple jacquerie: they had the required troops and decided to put all the insurgents to death, even if they had not taken arms.

It was an avalanche of war crimes. And yet the revolt not only was not put down, but it extended to the point of siege before Nantes. From then on, the Convention grew fearful and with two laws, of August 1 and October 1, ordered a policy of scorched earth in the Vendée (it is “Destroy the Vendée” repeated six times in the speech by Barère to get the vote for the first of these laws), which characterized a “generalized or systematic attack against a civilian population,” and therefore a policy of crimes against humanity.

And yet the Vendée continued to fight. When it was finally defeated in December 1793 at Savenay, and henceforth there was no more Vendée military force, except perhaps François de Charette who moreover only had a few hundred men in the region of de Retz – one might have expected the Convention members to seek pacification.

But this is precisely the moment when they decided to unleash the “infernal columns” on the Vendée, whose mission was to comb the country by burning everything and killing all those they met, including, where applicable, the Republican Vendéens (because there were still a few in the “Catholic and Royal” country). The Vendée must become a “national cemetery” (said General Turreau), a kind of blank page on which we can finally build the new society. As is obvious, genocidal logic crowns the spiral of violence, a criminal intent that had been built up gradually, but also that had hardened until it could be implemented.

CG: Why do you qualify the Vendée war as a “religious one?”

JV: In 1789, the “Vendéans,” had rather welcomed the Revolution. But both their religious culture and their social life were structured around Catholicism. Living in small parishes, isolated in their bocage around their “good priests,” who came from their own ranks and so were close to the people. These priests now saw their world crumble when they began to be hunted down for refusing the Civil Constitution of the Clergy in order to remain faithful to Rome.

When, in addition, the priests were required to go and fight at the borders to defend this new order that fell upon them (in March 1793), there was an explosion. Opposing them was the “Republic,” which took on the value of a true “political religion” or “secular religion” – Jules Michelet did not invent anything when he spoke of the Revolution as a new “Church” and a new “Gospel.” Mona Ozouf describes the search by the revolutionaries for a “transfer of sacredness” to found the new regime on a new legitimacy, like that of the king which was based on the coronation at Reims. But this required a “transfer of faith.”

The core of this war was religious – but religious on both sides. What really put an end to the war in the Vendée was the Concordat of 1801 (agreement reached between Bonaparte and the papal representative during the Consulate). Because the war continued at low intensity after Thermidor and the first attempts at pacification in 1795 (treaties of La Jaunaye, La Mabilais and Saint-Florent) – these agreements were never respected on either side, because Parisian authorities could not agree to restore the freedom of worship, which was the real reason for the Vendée uprising.

God the King badge of the rebels.

In 1797, there was even an upsurge in the policy of de-Christianization (it was under the Directory that most religious buildings would be destroyed, for example, such as the famous Cluny abbey). This is made clear in the report made to the Council of State by Joseph-Jérôme Simeon for the ratification of the text negotiated between Bonaparte and Pius VII – it is religious persecution which is at the origin of the revolt; and if freedom of public worship had been restored to the Vendéens earlier, we would have had peace sooner, or even no war at all.

After all, even the execution of the king in January 1793 had not caused an uprising. And after the Concordat there would be no more Vendée uprising. The Duchess of Berry in 1832 did not succeed in stirring up the region against Louis-Philippe. As in 1815, only a few nobles, for whom the monarchist cause counted as much or more than the Catholic cause, rose up. But the peasants did not follow – they had obtained the return of their “good priests,” and that was enough for them.

One question remains: why was there only one Vendée? In fact, there were many uprisings against the revolutionary Parisian dictatorship, since there were up to 60 departments in insurrection out of the 83 in France at the time. Either Vendée Catholicism was particularly internalized and “militant,” or it was particularly structured for the population which lived in what became the “Military Vendée,” or its initial successes allowed the uprising to become wide-spread and durable (and all these causes can be cumulative). But it is a fact that only the Vendée uprising was qualified, and this from the beginning, as a “war” by the Parisian revolutionaries themselves.

CG: What are the main obstacles to the recognition of the Vendéan genocide?

JV: It is the revolutionary faith that is in question, this idea that violence “brings about history” (Marx) and is the necessary and thus legitimate means of political and social progress. The revolutionary studies at the French University were organized under the Third Republic, first to celebrate the Revolution as the founding myth of the Republic. We then convinced ourselves that 1917 would be the new 1793, or the continuation of the movement of social revolution previously launched by the sans-culottes, but without Thermidor this time.

The marching wing of the Left, now Communist, then took over the management of this university sector – since 1937 all the holders of the chair of the history of the French Revolution at the Sorbonne, which sets the tone on this subject, have been members of the Société des Etudes Robespierristes, and almost always inset Communists or “fellow-travelers.” They have powerful political links. Today it is Jean-Luc Mélenchon especially, who calls himself Robespierriste, but even in yesteryears a François Mitterrand or a Lionel Jospin did not want to nurture an image of “the Left” that the economic policy they were pursuing was chipping away at was enough to dissociate themselves from it. This is still very true today.

Even if no historian can continue to claim like Clemenceau in the last century that “The Revolution is a bloc,” it nevertheless remains the doxa of the radical Left for whom the faith and especially the revolutionary hope remains intact, and which cannot therefore endure the questioning of this revolutionary tale which François Furet qualified as “vulgate Lenino-populist” and which takes the place of Holy History. It is a very small minority, but it is focused and activist, and propped up on strong institutional positions.

Today, the Republic is no longer a contested regime in France; we can afford to take stock of the good, the bad and the unacceptable in the legacy of the period of 1789-1799. Moreover, what we call the “Republic” today has nothing to do, institutionally or otherwise, with the terrorist regime of 1792-1794. It is interesting to note that President Macron celebrated the Republic in the Pantheon, taking as a reference the Republic’s proclamation on September 4, 1870. It is indeed the birth of the parliamentary and democratic republic which is the one in which we live today.

It is no less interesting to note that it was a Jean-Luc Mélenchon who responded to Macron by saying that the real date to remember is September 21, 1792, that is to say, precisely the foundation of the terrorist republic which would bloody France until Thermidor and make the very name of “Republic” odious in France until 1870.

During most of the 19th century France tried to find a form of constitutional monarchy. We tried with the Bourbons in 1815, with the Orléans in 1830, with the Bonapartes in 1852, and even a return to the Bourbons/Orléans in 1871-75, which would fail because of the irreconcilable divisions among the different monarchist groups. The different families who reigned over France having shown themselves incapable or having refused to make room for the representative regime, the Republic is in a way “by default;” and finally what is today its most stable form is another form of “republican monarchy.”

We no longer need the revolutionary myth to found the Republic. On the contrary, this idea that it is from violence that political and social progress comes appears to us today for what it is – a dangerous chimera. Disorder is not the climate in which justice progresses. On the contrary, it is the climate in which all injustices and all crimes become possible, if not inevitable.

CG: Why does official recognition of this genocide seem important to you today? What would be the point?

JV: It is a past that does not pass away. The Vendée has not forgotten. Otherwise, Philippe de Villiers would not have been able to found his “Puy-du-Fou” with so many volunteers, and continue it until today on the same basis, that is to say for more than 40 years.

We must also consider that the Vendée genocide is the high point of a trauma that has permanently rotted relations between the Church and the Republic. They were not necessarily meant to be confused with hostility, however. The republican form of the regime did not, even at the time, pose any problem to the Church, where it was not accompanied by antichristianism (the case of the United States); and it was even clearly preferred by the Church in some cases (Ireland, Poland).

Because of this initial trauma that even today we have not really succeeded in appeasing by a process of truth, we have invented a concept of “secularism,” anti-religious in fact, if not in principle, and which only exists in us to the point that this term is untranslatable in other languages. Recognizing the origin of the problem is essential, if we want to overcome it. The recognition of the Vendée genocide, which is in no way attributable to “the Republic,” but to a terrorist group which seized power under this name in 1793-94, just as another terrorist group will seize power in Russia in 1917 to remain there by violence for 70 years – only this recognition can allow us to strengthen our national unity and consider more serenely the moral and intellectual future, even spiritual, of our country.

The more violent a revolution, the more it delays the advent of a peaceful and democratic society. In England, the revolution of 1649 was followed by ten years of civil war at the end of which a successful Restoration allowed the country to regain its base, even with the crisis of 1688.

In France, where the Restorations (Bourbons, Orléans, Bonaparte) did not succeed in taking root, it took almost a century to begin to digest the period of 1789-1799 – we did not begin to enter into truly democratic mores until around 1880; and political liberalism took even longer to come about.

In Russia, the violence of the Revolution in 1917 was such that even more than 30 years after the collapse of Sovietism, it is clear that liberal democracy is not yet relevant there even if a whole segments of Russian society aspire to it. You do not make flowers grow by pulling on them or, as Talleyrand already said, “Time does not respect anything that we try to do without.”

The Revolution is not a means of progress – sometimes necessary, or rather inevitable, to bring down an unjust system, or one that has become incapable of ensuring the common good, it can destroy – but it does not build anything. It is time that we realized, that we admit in France, that the democracy in which we live owes nothing, except perhaps symbolically and nothing more, to 1789-1799, which was overall a formidable regression of civilization, right up to genocide.

The liberal ideas of 1789 would have finally prevailed anyway, in the great movement of political reform which manifested itself everywhere in Europe from the 17th century onwards. These ideas could certainly have won out much more gradually, as was done in the United Kingdom, which descends gently from the “limited monarchy” of 1689 to the aristocratic regime of the 18th century and its progressive democratization in the mid-19th century. And that would have been preferable: England has undergone a much more reasonable development, and democratic mores have taken root much more deeply there than in France, where even still in 1940 the Republic aroused enough hatred and opposition as historical trauma that it was overthrown in favor of a regime which renounced even its name.

It is therefore not the Republic that is at issue here, but the myth of political violence as a means of progress that must be deconstructed. Realizing that the Human Rights Revolution was able to degenerate into genocide should undoubtedly make us collectively more reasonable about what we can expect from violence in politics and about the tragedy of an ideological regime that claims to bring about a “new world” and a “new man.”

I see no better conclusion on this subject than to quote the speech Solzhenitsyn made on September 25, 1993 at the Historial of Vendée, built on the initiative of the Vendée departmental council, then chaired by Philippe de Villiers:

“It was the 20th century that considerably tarnished, in the eyes of mankind, the romantic halo that surrounded the revolution in the 18th century. Men have at last come to know, based on their own misfortunes, that revolutions destroy the organic character of society; that they ruin the natural course of life; that they annihilate the best elements of the population, giving free rein to the worst; that no revolution can enrich a country, just a few unscrupulous hustlers; that in its own country, generally, it is the cause of countless deaths, widespread impoverishment and, in the most serious, lasting degradation of the population.”

The French version of this interview appeared in La Nef.

The image shows “La déroute de Cholet, octobre 1793” (“The Rout at Cholet, October 1793”) by ules Girardet, painted in 1886.

Translated from by French by N. Dass.