Here is an excerpt from Richard Pope’s intriguing new book about man’s long fascination with birds and flight. It’s called, Flight from Grace, and the little sample that follows wonderfully demonstrates the genius of early man. The book takes wing immediately with little-known facts, supplemented by astonishing images of artifacts that stand testament to the human spirit.
Portable art, which includes carvings, figurines, and engravings on ivory, stone, bone, and antler, is found often, but not exclusively, in caves. Bird representations are not uncommon in this art, particularly in the Magdalenian period (15,000–10,000 BCE). In French Palaeolithic art alone, out of 121 possible bird representations, Dominique Buisson and Geneviève Pinçon accept 81 as certain. Of these 81 sure bird representations, 15 (19 per cent) are on cave walls and 67 (81 per cent) are portable. Birds are much more common in portable art everywhere during the Palaeolithic. It is also striking that of the 81 sure French birds, almost half of which are not identifiable to species (47.6 per cent), 37 per cent represent either web-footed birds like ducks, geese, and swans or crane-like waders, and 10 per cent are raptors. The popularity of these waterbirds and raptors is also attested throughout Palaeolithic bird art in general. R. Dale Guthrie is right to point out that not all of these representations are masterpieces. Often carved in difficult materials, they range from the relatively crude to the superb. The artistic quality of these birds would not, however, have affected their function as amulets, pendants, charms, and ex-votos.
At the mention of mammoth-ivory sculpture of the Palaeolithic, one’s first thought is of the numerous figurines of plump females – the so-called Palaeolithic Venuses – found from Spain right across to Lake Baikal in eastern Siberia. What is interesting for us, however, is the common association of these Venuses with carvings of birds. Although these early Venuses are never bird-headed, as they often are in the Neolithic, these cult objects are often found in association with bird figurines and pendants. The Palaeolithic Venuses are thought by many to be figures with cult significance, and I believe that the bird figurines generally reflect the same cult status and represent various early forms of bird worship.
Perhaps our oldest known bird sculpture, dating from at least 28,000 BCE, is a mammoth-ivory carving found in the Hohle Fels Cave in the Swabian Jura mountain range in Germany – a charming representation of a flying waterbird, thought by some (not birders, I suspect) to be a cormorant but almost certainly some kind of duck. You can even see the feathers carved on the bird’s side. The only representation of a bird that is older is the Chauvet engraved owl and perhaps a partridge/quail engraving on a flint flake, discussed below.
Before considering this bird’s significance, it is interesting to note what else was found in the Hohle Fels Cave in the period dating from before or around 30,000 BCE. There is an ivory Löwenmensch similar to, although less exquisite and smaller than, the famous one found in the Stadel Cave, which is known to date from about 38,000 BCE. Significantly, these Löwenmensch figurines are not carvings of humans wearing lion masks but of human figures with lion heads. They are monstrous hybrids that could exist only in the human imagination but must have been part of the local belief structure, as we can deduce from the fact that we have two such figurines from two different caves in the Swabian Jura, where one of the earliest settlements of human beings in Europe took place. Our oldest Palaeolithic Venus, possibly a pendant, was unearthed here in 2008 and found to be at least 37,000 years old; fragments of a second one were discovered in 2015. Although it seems slightly younger, dating from about 26,000 BCE, we also have a carved stone phallus measuring nearly 8 inches (20 centimetres), almost certainly associated with some kind of ritual or ceremony concerning procreation and fertility, as are the Palaeolithic Venuses. A stunning find was a fivehole flute made from the wing bone of a griffon vulture dating from about 33,000 BCE – an object suggestive of the dance floor, which is so closely connected to the origins of the sacred. Lastly, dating from about 28,000 BCE, there is a carving of the head of a horse, notably not a major food item for these humans, that is reminiscent of the horses in cave wall art. Clearly, this cave was some kind of sanctuary where religious beliefs were manifested. So, although we can never know the meaning of any Palaeolithic work of art for certain, the fact that the bird carving was found in the same cave as carvings of naked women, a Löwenmensch, a phallus, a horse, and a flute suggests that something more than art classes was taking place in this early cave and that our bird very likely had some kind of cult importance in the belief structure of these early humans.
We also have a number of exquisite flying-bird pendants (and three that are not flying) from the incredible Mal’ta site in Siberia northwest of Lake Baikal, excavated by the Russian archaeologist Mikhail Mikhaylovich Gerasimov. Most of them were found in connection with hearths, and cult status is nearly certain. Several of them were found in the famous grave of a four-year-old child, the same child who clinched the genetic link between the Mal’ta-Buret’ people and North American Indigenous peoples. These mammoth-ivory flying-bird pendants were originally thought to date from 23,000–19,000 BCE, although more recent radiocarbon dating has suggested a somewhat later Magdalenian date around 15,000 BCE.
Most of the Mal’ta bird figurines represent flying waterfowl, probably swans judging by the long necks. Thirteen of them are very similar in shape and are both phallic and snakelike in form, suggesting connections between the bird deity and two other potent symbols of the sacred.
In western Europe, echoing Mal’ta, we again find representations of waterfowl: a carving of waterfowl with young at the Mas d’Azil Cave, a swan engraved on stone at the Gourdan Cave and one at the Teyjat Cave, a duck/goose engraved on horn at Gourdan and one at the Caves of Nerja, and a duck engraved on stone at the Cave of Espélugues in Lourdes. Michèle Crémades and colleagues illustrate several ducks from the Parapalló and Escabasses Caves and geese from the Labastide and Gourdan Caves.
Waterbirds, such as grebes, loons, ducks, geese, and swans, were sacred to subsistence-hunting peoples in the Palaeolithic and still revered in the Neolithic and historic periods. Diving birds, like the zhingibis (grebe and the maang (loon), still play an important role to this day in Ojibwe trickster stories and creation legends, as well as in the Ojibwe clan system, where we find Crane, Loon, Black Duck, and Goose among the totems. You might well ask, why diving birds? But think about it: grebes, loons, and diving ducks are perhaps the only creatures that are at home in the murky depths of lakes and rivers, nest on dry land, and are at home in the sky, being strong migratory fliers. The ability to survive in all three elements makes them obvious candidates for magical status.
Equally important, ducks, geese, swans, and cranes are markers of the retreat and reappearance of winter; they are among the last to leave in autumn and the first to arrive in spring. Migration must have been very mysterious and seemed magical, like eclipses and solstices; birds, the sun, and the seasons disappear and then, hopefully, reappear – a source of major anxiety. Wherever did these mysterious beings go? What if they did not reappear? Hence the reverence for waterbirds, the sun, and the spring, along with the need to devise rituals in order to ensure their return. And last but not least, ducks, geese, and swans were a crucial food source for the people who hunted them, collected their eggs, and reaped them in great numbers during the flightless period of the moult. It is natural to revere fellow creatures that you rely on for food. These are birds you would not want to offend lest they abandon you. Perhaps indicative of their power is the touching, late-Neolithic burial at Vedbaek in Denmark of a tiny baby boy next to its young mother, the baby cradled in a whooper swan’s wing. The swan may have been meant to escort the child to the other world.
It is interesting to note that this waterfowl cult persisted in various societies throughout the Neolithic until modern times. In Russia and Siberia, Margarita Aleksandrovna Kiriyak tells us, “[b]irds are a widespread subject of rock drawings in the Neolithic art of north Eurasian tribes. Both waterfowl and birds of prey are encountered among the images.” There are also many carvings. She provides us with a photograph of a beautifully carved, upright goose made of smoky obsidian that is sitting with its neck stretched up, found at the Neolithic Tytyl’ IV site in western Chukhotka. Joseph Campbell points out that “early Russian missionaries and voyagers in Siberia … found among the tribes numerous images of geese with extended wings.” Steven Mithin reminds us that, “[a]mong the nineteenth-century Saami people of northern Europe, swans and waterfowl were the messengers of the gods.” The Canadian High Arctic was peopled by immigrants from Siberia, so we are not surprised to find Palaeo-Eskimo carvings of birds, such as waterbirds, cranes, and falcons, like the carvings of the Dorset (Tuniit) culture (500 BCE–ca. 1200 CE), which long preceded the later Inuit culture. Coastal-dwelling peoples who made their living from the sea revered the seabirds, which were so crucial to their existence. Newfoundland’s Beothuks, for example, appear to have had such “birds at the centre of their belief system.” Beothuks were buried in seaside graves with the feet of actual birds – guillemots – attached to their leggings and with various carved and engraved ivory and bone pendants, of which over 400 have been found, all plausibly identified as representing seabirds’ feet, seabirds’ primary wing feathers, or the tails of Arctic terns in flight. Since one equips the dead with precisely those items needed for the journey to the afterlife, which in this case entailed flight over water to an island paradise, these birds were doubtless crucial helpers serving in their classic role as psychopomps.
In his Folklore of Birds (1958), Edward Armstrong devotes three whole chapters to the ubiquitous cult of waterfowl – geese, swans, and loons in particular – that survives in later, worldwide folklore. This was a tenacious tradition!
Among the long-legged waders, cranes are well attested in Palaeolithic art. Jean-Jacques Cleyet-Merle and Stéphane Madelaine, after careful study of a Magdalenian engraving on a perforated stick of reindeer antler from Laugerie-Basse in the Dordogne region, convincingly established that the engraved wader was a common crane by cleverly fitting two separate pieces back together. They say that there is a striking similarity between this bird and the two engraved on the piece of schist found in the Labastide Cave, which they take to be cranes as well. Crémades and colleagues illustrate a crane-like wader found in the Gargas Cave in the Pyrenees and add three recently discovered engraved cranes, one on a spear point, from Magdalenian sites in the Pyrenees. In the Belvis Cave, there is an engraving on bone of a very odd, horizontal wading bird – longnecked like a crane or heron. In the Morín Cave, there is an engraving on a rib fragment of what appear to be five overlapping bird heads; although Don Hitchcock thinks that they are ducks or swans, I think that they look more like large, long-billed waders – cranes or herons. In any case, this edible, upright, dancing bird, which marked off the seasons by its migration, was obviously very special for early modern humans. It is not surprising, then, that among the special dances performed in ancient Greek sanctuaries was the Crane Dance, performed “with tortuous, labyrinthian movements.”
After the owls in the Chauvet and Trois Fréres Caves, it will come as no surprise that owls figure in Palaeolithic portable art as well. We have at least four very old owl representations dating from about 25,000 BCE at the sites of Dolní Věstonice and Pavlov in Moravia in the Czech Republic. Two are owl pendants, which were probably worn either for clan reasons or as amulets offering protection by a deity, just as one might wear a Saint Christopher medal or a cross around one’s neck today or hang a Magnetic Mary in the car. The other two are baked-clay figurines of owls, neither of which are earless, making them perhaps Eurasian eagle-owls. There is also an Upper Palaeolithic owl carved from an animal tooth that was found in the Mas d’Azil Cave, which is quite similar to the Dolní Věstonice figurines. Lastly, we have a handle of some sort with a carved face of an owl found at the Russian site of Avdeevo dating from about 19,000–18,000 BCE.
Waterbirds and owls do not exhaust our list of birds in Palaeolithic portable art. In Mezin, a Magdalenian settlement near Kiev, six little mammoth-ivory figurines of birds were found dating from about 15,000– 13,000 BCE. They are beautifully and delicately carved with fat bodies and flat tails and incised with delicate patterns of lines presenting our earliest known example of the meander pattern. Some are flying birds and some are not, and none of them seem to be waterfowl. They appear to represent plump, edible birds, and judging by their fat bodies and longish, flat tails, my best guess is that they represent some kind of a grouse, partridge, or ptarmigan. They are linked to the goddess motif by the etched pubic triangles – vulva symbols – on their backs.
Ptarmigan will continue to be an important theme in art when we move into the Neolithic. In far northeastern Russia in Chukhotka, among the many small stone bird carvings, we find a number of ptarmigan.
It is noteworthy that grouse and ptarmigan were also revered in western Europe. There is a detailed carving of a grouse, with the head missing, on the end of an atlatl, or spear-thrower, made of antler that was found in Mas d’Azil. The Gönnersdorf Cave, an Upper Palaeolithic site on the Middle Rhine with over 150 engravings of animals on slate, also has a few lifelike bird engravings from around 15,000 BCE, one of which is a ptarmigan. A bird that Armstrong, probably rightly, takes to be a ptarmigan engraved on a reindeer antler was found in the Isturitz Cave. There is an engraving on a limestone pebble from Laugerie-Basse that is either a corvid – scavenging bird – or a capercaillie.
There is a bird engraved using the sunken relief method on a flint flake found at the open-air site Cantalouette II in the Dordogne region. It is interesting because of the sunken relief technique and its Aurignacian origins (33,000–29,000 BCE). It is one of our oldest pieces of Palaeolithic bird art – along with the Hohle Fels waterbird and the Chauvet owl – and it may be a grey partridge or a common quail.
The grouse/ptarmigan can hardly have been a fortuitous choice for carvers; to assume that it is just a pretty design is an anachronistic assumption. Upper Palaeolithic and Neolithic artists did not work that way; this crucial winter food source was probably chosen for clan and totem reasons or because the carvings were seen as fetishes and carried with one to please and appease the grouse spirit. These carvings were not baubles.
There seem to be few Palaeolithic representations of birds other than waterbirds, birds of prey, namely owls, and birds of the grouse type in our early portable art. There is a bird pendant carved from a cave bear’s canine tooth that was found in the Solutrean layer (20,000–15,000 BCE) of the Buxu Cave in Spain. It is thought to be some kind of crake or other member of the Rallidae family, although that is doubtful. There are a few bustards, like the two from the Gourdan Cave, one from Laugerie-Basse, and one from Abri de la Madeleine, although they can be hard to tell from geese. There is a bird, together with a bison, engraved on sandstone in the Cave of Puy-de-Lacan, and it is usually thought to be a long-legged duck or goose, although it is much more likely a bustard. Apart from these edible birds, there are hardly any others.
The great tradition of Palaeolithic art came to an end around 9500 BCE after at least 25,000 years, “perhaps the greatest art tradition humankind has ever known.” The uniformity of subjects and techniques over so long a period is astounding.
What we see in these bird drawings, figurines, pendants, and engravings is a 20,000-year continuum of representations of various birds that demonstrates the persistence of the bird as cult object and sacred amulet throughout the Palaeolithic. It is not accidental that birds, snakes, Venuses, and penises turn up so regularly in this animistic culture, where humans need all the help that they can get to survive. It will not be surprising if earlier finds from the Middle Palaeolithic (298,000–48,000 BCE) turn up, and if they do, we can bet that among them there will be birds.
As we prepare with regret to leave the Palaeolithic and enter the Pre-Pottery Neolithic (10,000–6500 BCE), what can we conclude about the role of birds in human eyes up to this time? Any thought that birds were just pretty or edible creatures that could serve as the subjects of objets d’art must be banished. As Armstrong puts it, “to man in the Old Stone Age [or Palaeolithic] birds were not merely acceptable as food but symbolized mysterious powers which pervaded the wilderness in which he hungered, hunted and wove strange dreams.” Birds, in various forms, from diving birds to owls and grouse, were sacred and thought to have spirits whose help was sought for coping with life and death. Birds were carved from mammoth ivory, bone, antler, and stone, depicted on atlatls, worn on the body as pendants, buried in the grave with children, carried as fetishes, or simply kept as cult representations deep in caves, where they were painted or etched on the walls of inner sanctum rooms in positions of honour that reflected the degree of sacredness imputed to these feathered deities. From our earliest Upper Palaeolithic finds at Hohle Fels and Chauvet to our youngest ones at Lascaux and Mas d’Azil, the importance of birds for humans remains paramount.
The featured image shows, “Margaret (‘Peg’) Woffington (the actress),” by Jean-Baptiste van Loo, painted ca. 1738.
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.
The Islamic claim to historicity is well known, but its true history is hidden in countless individual details, each of which requires individual investigation, as has been shown by Inârah’s researches. For Islam, the so-called “five pillars” (arkān al-Islām or arkān ad-dīn “the pillars of faith”) constitute the actual fundamental rituals of Islam, which are considered obligatory by the faithful and form the basis of Muslim life (cf. the so-called Gabriel Hadith). These are:
The Shahāda, the creed of Islam (“There is no god but God; Muhammad is the messenger of God”);
Ṣalāt, daily ritual prayer towards Mecca (location of the Kaʿba), the qibla, which is to be performed at fixed times (awqāt) five times a day and which is also the supreme duty of all Muslims;
The Zakāt, the obligatory giving of a certain portion of one’s possessions to the needy and other specified groups of people;
The Ṣaum, the fast between dawn and sunset during the month of Ramaḍān;
The Hajj, the Islamic pilgrimage to Mecca during the month of dhu l-ḥiǧǧah.
Something about the history of Islam’s development is made clear by the observation that none of these rites can basically be considered exclusively Islamic, which is confirmed by the fact that all these terms are borrowed from Aramaic (which in turn took the last four from Hebrew).
Thus, we have made a small step forward in deciphering the Islam’s path of development, namely the significant role of Aramaic (Syriac)-speaking Eastern Christianity, of which some groups, among other things, rejected the divinity of Christ, and which must be regarded as the actual substrate of Islam.
But here we are largely in the Late Antique Near East, east of the Euphrates, i.e., in Mesopotamia, far away from Mecca in the endless desert of the Ḥijāz, where according to later Islamic tradition the birthplace of a “Muḥammad,” and thus of Islam, is said to be located. After all, the second and fifth pillars of Islam listed above seemingly refer to this city. In the Qur’an itself, however, the word Mecca (Makka) is explicitly mentioned only once, in Sura 48:24: “And He it is Who hath withheld men’s hands from you, and hath withheld your hands from them, in the valley of Mecca, after He had made you victors over them. Allah is Seer of what ye do.”
It is often asserted, usually accompanied by claims to otherwise unknown phonetic changes, that the mention of Bakka in 3:96 also refers to this city: “Indeed, the first House (inna awwala baytin) established for mankind is surely the one at Bakka, blessed, and a guidance for (all creatures in).”
And according to most commentators, 14:37 is supposed to describe this location in more detail: “Our Lord! Lo! I have settled some of my posterity in an uncultivable valley near unto Thy holy House (ʿinda baytika l-muḥarami), our Lord! that they may establish proper worship; so incline some hearts of men that they may yearn toward them, and provide Thou them with fruits in order that they may be thankful.”
The precise relationship of Mecca to Bakka remains unclear, and linking them together requires a leap of faith, especially since Mecca itself is only attested very late and then only in Islamic sources which are otherwise uncorrelated. The Qur’an only speaks of an unspecified valley.
Bakka, on the other hand, according to the Qur’an, is home to “the first house,” which in our opinion was not founded for the people, but by the people (lilnnāsi – li– then here as the so-called Lamed auctoris). If “the first house” means (the) temple, i.e., the supposed earthly dwelling place of God, which would then also be the “holy house,” it is conceivable that 14:37 actually refers to this, which could mean a valley known as Bakka.
Islamic orthopraxy, being itself relatively late, offers no support in this regard. Islamic tradition itself notes that the original direction of prayer was not towards Mecca, but northwards or towards Syria (aš-šam); Muhammad is said to have changed this only in Madīna, after the Jews there refused to convert. But in the Islamic sources, the creation of legends is widespread and, as usual, quite contradictory with many subsequent attempts at harmonisation.
Thus, Mecca as the (original) point of reference for Islamic prayer is clearly an invention of later tradition – it should be mentioned in passing here that qibla in the sense of “direction of prayer,” in the Qur’an only 2,142- 145, can probably be interpreted more meaningfully as Kabbalah in the older Jewish sense of this term, namely as “(previously) revealed scriptures” (esp. the Hebrew Bible, excluding the Torah).
As for the pilgrimage (to Mecca; cf. the Hebrew term ḥag, which is used in the biblical context for the three Jewish pilgrimage festivals of Passover, Shavuot and Sukkot and from which Hajj ultimately derives), this is attested in the verse subsequent to the mention of Bakka, i.e. 3:97: “… And pilgrimage to the House (ḥiǧǧu l-bayti), is a duty unto Allah for mankind, for him who can find a way thither…”
The Islamic pilgrimage to Mecca consists of various elements: on 8 Dhu l-Ḥiǧǧah in Mecca after entering the consecrated state of Ihram, the first Ṭawāf (the sevenfold circumambulation of the Kaʿba) is performed; this is followed by the Sa’i, the run between the hills Safa and Marwa (aṣ-Ṣafā wal-Marwa); after this pilgrims drink from the Zamzam well, after which they go to the plains of Mount ʿArafāt to keep watch; then they spend a night on the plains of Muzdalifa, and a symbolic stoning of the devil is performed by lapidating three pillars. Afterwards, the pilgrims shave their heads, perform a sacrificial ritual and celebrate the three-day festival ʿīdu l- aḍḥā.
Julius Wellhausen postulated that the original Hajj was a ritual that only included the stations in the ʿArafāt plain, in Muzdalifa and in Mina, but had nothing to do with the Meccan sanctuary of the Kaʿba (Reste arabischen Heidentums, Berlin, 1897, 79-84). We will then leave the former out of consideration here; in the Qur’an, the Kaʿba (Arab. “Parthenon;” that is a shrine originally dedicated to the virgin mother of Dushara/Dionysus/ Bacchus) is mentioned only twice, 5:95 and 97 (“Allah has made the Kaʿba, the inviolable House, a place of prayer for mankind (l-kaʿbata l-bayta l-ḥarāma qiyāman lilnnāsi“), as well as the sacred month and the sacrificial animals and the animals with the neck ornaments.
This is so that you may know that Allah knows what is in the heavens and what is on earth, and that Allah knows all things”), whereby the reference to a specific place is not given. According to today’s understanding of the Meccan part of the rite, only Safa and Marwa (aṣ-ṣafā wal-marwa) can be located near Mecca, the course between these two hills being given by 2:158: “Lo! (the mountains) As-Safa and Al-Marwah are among the indications of Allah. It is therefore no sin for him who is on pilgrimage to the House (of Allah) or visiteth it, to go around them (as the pagan custom is). And he who doeth good of his own accord, (for him) lo! Allah is Responsive, Aware.” Again, there is no direct reference to Mecca here.
The conclusion so far, briefly summarised:
Mecca is mentioned once in the Qur’an (48:24), but not in relation to the Hajj. Another verse (3:96) mentions a “first house” located at Bakka, which is possibly also mentioned in 14:37 (does the one and only Allah inhabit more than one house?). A pilgrimage to the “house” is suggested in 3:97.
The run between Safa and Marwa (aṣ-ṣafā wal-marwa), which forms part of the Islamic Hajj, is conditionally prescribed in 2:158. From this patchwork of Qur’anic verses, the Islamic pilgrimage in and around Mecca emerged at some point, when cannot be ascertained hitherto. In the Semitic languages, the noun bayt “house” can also be used in the sense of a temple dedicated to a deity, often in a genitive compound (“in the house of the Lord,” bə-ḇêṯ-Yahweh, e.g. Psalm 134:1).
In biblical tradition, this term in the cultic sense actually always refers to the Jerusalem Temple; its use for an unknown, historically at best insignificant sanctuary far away in the Ḥijāz seems strange.
With regard to Jerusalem, however, in the Jewish Antiquities Flavius Josephus’ account of Alexander the Great at Jerusalem, where he is said to have sacrificed to Yahweh in the Temple according to the instructions of the High Priest (here, since our interest remains purely geographical, the historicity of the event is insignificant), we read XI.329 (ed. Whiston): “And when he understood that he was not far from the city, he went out in procession, with the priests and the multitude of the citizens. The procession was venerable, and the manner of it different from that of other nations. It reached to a place called Sapha, which name, translated into Greek, signifies a ‘prospect’ (σκοπόν), for you have thence a prospect both of Jerusalem and of the temple (τά τε γὰρ Ἱεροσόλυμα καὶ τὸν ναὸν συνέβαινεν ἐκεῖθεν ἀφορᾶσθαι).”
This place is none other than Mount Scopus in Jerusalem (today the main site of the Hebrew University), one of the highest places in that city (cf. one of the Arabic names: ğabal al-mašārif). The Hebrew name har haṣ-ṣōfīm “Watchman’s Mountain” confirms Josephus’ indication. In postbiblical Hebrew, a ṣōf is a pilgrim who has seen Jerusalem, cf. another Arabic name ğabal almašhad “Witness Mountain” (cf. above on the ‘first pillar’). This mountain in Arabic rendering is then none other than aṣ-ṣafā.
In the biblical tradition (cf. 2 Chronicles 3:1; the Targum to Song of Songs 4:6 etc.) the Temple Mount (har hab-báyiṯ is Mount Moriah (har ham-moriyyāh; where according to Genesis 22:2 the sacrifice of Isaac almost took place), i.e. in Arabic, Marwa. On the basis of these explanations, we have in Jerusalem the “house” (scil. of God – báy(i)t), undoubtedly in the monotheistic understanding “blessed and a guidance for the worlds” (Q3,96), on the Temple Mount, that is Moriah/Marwa as well as the second mountain Scopus/har haṣ-ṣōfīm/aṣṣafā. All that remains is Bakka (3:96) and a “barren valley” (or wadi 14:37) near to the “house of God” (bi-wādin ġayri ḏī zarʿin ʿinda baytika l-muḥarrami).
A valley named Bakka, however, is mentioned in the Bible, Psalm 84:7: “ 5 Blessed are those who dwell in your house (bêṯäḵā); in whose heart are the ways of them. 6 Who passing through the valley of Baca (bə-ʿämäq hab-bākkā – lit. “Valley of Weeping”) make it a well; the rain also filleth the pools. 7 They go from strength to strength, every one of them in Zion appeareth before God. 8 O Lord God of hosts, hear my prayer: give ear, O God of Jacob. Selah. 9 Behold, O God our shield, and look upon the face of thine anointed.”
To all appearances, in this conception rendered here by the Psalmist, the valley of ‘weeping’ or Bakka (from the root bkw, also the origin of Bacchus, see above) is not far from Jerusalem. In the Targum of this psalm verse, the valley of tears/ʿämäq hab-bākkā is rendered “valley of Gehenna”, also the Talmudic understanding, because those damned to hell are said to wail and shed copious tears due to their infernal fate (Eruvin 19a). The Gehenna Valley, where child burnt offerings were once made to Yahweh (Joshua 15:8; 18:16; Jeremiah 19:2) was close to Jerusalem.
The historical site of the pre-exilic Moloch sacrifices (apparently the present-day wādī ar-rababi) was not, however, the same as that of Late Antique biblical exegesis, which called it the Kidron Valley (Hebrew naḥal qiḏron “the valley of darkness;” its upper course, significantly, in Arabic is wādī annār “the valley of fire”) or the Jehoshaphat Valley, according to Joel 3:1-3/4:1-3: “For behold, in those days and in that time, when I shall bring again the captivity of Judah and Jerusalem, I will also gather all nations, and will bring them down into the valley of Jehoshaphat, and will plead with them there for my people, and for mine heritage Israel: whom they have scattered among the nations, and parted my land. And they have cast lots for my people, and have given the child for the harlot, and sold the girl for wine, that they might drink.”
This infernal valley is by definition barren and, moreover, adjacent to the Temple Mount (ʿinda baytika l- muḥarami), vividly illustrating the contrast between ‘high’ and ‘low’, ‘light’ and ‘bright’, ‘redeemed’ and ‘damned’. This Judeo-Christian exegetical tradition is carried on without exception by the Islamic tradition, the valley is here called wādī al-ğahannam “Hell Valley,” suspended over which at the end of times during the Last Judgement, will be aṣ-ṣirāṭ (“way, path, road,” here rather “bridge”) connecting the Temple Mount and the Mount of Olives, which in Islamic eschatology must be crossed by the deceased to reach Paradise.
This eschatological gangplank is said to be as thin as a hair, and underneath it is the abyss to hell: those who have no trust in God will falter and waver and thereupon fall thither, those however who trust God and are forgiven their transgressions shall cross unhindered. Wellhausen’s insightful suggestion to separate the Meccan parts of the Hajj rite from those taking place extra muros is thus seemingly accurate – the proto-Islamic pilgrimage clearly went to Jerusalem, which is actually hardly surprising. Here are located the “House (of God),” the barren valley of Bakka, as well as aṣ-ṣafā and al-marwa.
Not only is their geographical location in (post)biblical tradition assured, they also fulfil a significant function in sacramental economy that is entirely absent in Mecca. In later Islamic tradition, some Umayyad caliphs were accused of having diverted the Hajj from Mecca to Jerusalem – in the 7th century, however, one cannot yet speak of “Islam” in the proper sense – here we are probably dealing with a later memory of a past time in which pilgrimages were still made to Jerusalem, which was then considered heretical after the complete transfer of the sacred geography of the rite to Mecca.
What we have then is a memory of a time in which the Hajj was to Jerusalem, which naturally later was seen as heretical. Thus, it is clear that the roots and motifs that define the Hajj stem entirely from biblical tradition; only much later were they recast so as to fit in with emerging innovative Islamic orthopraxy.
ProfessorDr. Robert M. Kerr studied Classics and Semitics largely in Vancouver, Tübingen and Leyden. He is currently director of the Inârah Institute, for research on Early Islamic History and the Qur’an in Saarbrücken (Germany).
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 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?
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?
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; hisA 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?
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.”
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.
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.
Dr. James Patrick has spent his life teaching, and in this book he seeks to tell on a larger scale the story of the Christian mind as it developed according to what he refers to as the “adventure” of the Holy Spirit. Indeed, the Christian mind moved from faithful intuition to writing and composing original ideas of concrete truths, and this in turn led to inspired foundations upon which a new kind of world became possible. Patrick does not wish the reader to think the Christian mind has ever intended to create utopia on earth or to proselytize, rather that the dynamic Christian intellect indicates a human heart made new and from this newness still spring horizons of hope and culture.
The Christian mind is, says Patrick, not only inspired and moved by the restless Paraclete, but revolves around the event of Jesus Christ. Christian history is therefore best understood not simply as chronology of events but as the vision of “the new heart in time,” one that strives to be like that of the one who sent the Spirit into history.
“Matthew: The Making Of The New Heart”
Matthew was the Gospel. When early Christian writers turned to a source of Jesus’ words and deeds it was to Matthew, or what became Matthew, that they turned. And within Matthew, their pattern of quotation suggests, they turned first to chapters five through seven, containing the Beatitudes and the dominical transformation of the law from the propositions of the Mosaic law as these were understood by the observant Jew to an interior, life-forming participation of the heart in the will of the Father. Jesus sat down, opened his mouth, and taught them. Thus began the Sermon on the Mount. Luke knows something of this text (6:20–49), but neither Mark nor John contains obvious parallels. Jesus’ words in Matthew 5–6 as he transforms the Mosaic law held a hope for the regeneration of the human heart greater than the virtuous life Aristotle had taught in his Ethics and Cicero in his On Duties.
The opening verses, the eight Beatitudes, are at the center of the moral vocabulary of Christian mankind, although on any showing they are challenging at first sight. They are not prescriptive but descriptive, proposing no course of action but promising beatitude or blessedness to those possessing the right state of soul or, as in the seventh and eighth, able to bear persecution. In this way they are truly kerygma or preaching, a proclamation describing the blessedness that accompanies those on the Christian way. The Greek makarios is sometimes translated “happy,” but “blessed” is better, for happiness is a subjective state of contentment or well-being, while blessedness is the state of being fulfilled by God at his will and in his presence. Blessedness is not a virtue, not a natural virtue that the best efforts of man can achieve at least episodically, or even a supernatural virtue given silently at baptism, but a gift following upon that supernatural infusion of grace, life lived in the Christian way, the steady result of day by day, charity-inspired cooperation with the Holy Spirit. They are echoed in what Paul knows as the fruits of the Spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control (Gal. 5:22).
In this Matthean text Jesus does not tell the disciples how to seek blessedness; he does not, as elsewhere, urge repentance. The Beatitudes are gifts, and they are proleptic, looking forward to the coming of the Kingdom. Blessedness will come at Pentecost, when hearts will burn within and the question will be “Brethren, what shall we do?” Jesus is waiting: “I came to cast fire on the earth, and would that it were already kindled” (Luke 12:49). But now, on the threshold of the last day, is the time to prepare the disciples for the new life that is coming, to give them words that they will remember when Jesus’ first great promise, “I will send the Holy Spirit, the Advocate or Counselor,” is fulfilled.
This is the life prophesied by Jeremiah: Behold, the days are coming, says the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with house of Israel and the House of Judah, not like the covenant which I made with their fathers when I took them by the hand to bring them out of Egypt. [. . .] I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts, and I will be their God and they shall be my people. And no longer shall each man teach his neighbor, and each his brother, saying “Know the Lord,” for they shall all know me from the least to the greatest (Jer. 31:31–34). And Ezekiel: “A new heart I will give you, a new spirit I will put within you. And I will take out of your flesh the heart of stone and I will give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my spirit within you and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to observe my ordinances” (11:19). When Peter stood up at Pentecost he declared the descent of the Spirit to be the fulfillment of the prophecy of Joel: “And in the last days it shall be, God declares, I will pour out my Spirit on all flesh, and your sons and daughters shall prophesy” (Acts 2:17–18, Joel 2:28–32). In that Day they all will possess the Prophetic Spirit. But the new way must possess the mind as well as the heart; the gift will be fulfilled in those who have been taught: “Go, baptize, teach.”
The best of the Greeks and Romans had known that the good all men seek is not some possession extrinsic to the self but a state of soul. Aristotle’s Ethics, with a spirit echoed in Justin’s day by the stoic Epictetus, begins by asking what it is that all men seek for its own sake, not as an instrument leading to something greater such as wealth or wisdom, which we may desire because they promise happiness. Rather, happiness itself, eudaimonia, is what all men desire for its own sake. But quickly Aristotle turns to the observation that happiness is not possible without goodness.
So the Philosopher does not, as Epicurus would later, propose happiness as the complement of pleasure, but as the best state of the soul in the righteous man. And this, famously, is to be achieved not through the appropriation of theoria, not through the exercise of intellect, but through the practice of the moral virtues—justice, temperance, prudence, and courage—and that not in a world-pleasing way, but as a good man might practice them. The means was the natural capacity of the self-commanding man to become virtuous. Aristotle’s Ethics is the high summary of the best of Hellenism’s moral proposals. Yet it neither elevated the eye of the soul above the realm of nature, which Aristotle would have considered impossible, nor purified the will.
When after Pentecost Christians looked at the world around them, they saw the ravages of the flaw that would be called original sin, ignorance and that deformation of the will called concupiscence, which five centuries of the best of Greek and Roman moral advice had not been able to repair. Against this was set the moral proposals and the moral power of Jesus. Christ came not only with good advice but with the ability to change hearts. And first came the revolutionary ideas found in the fifth chapter of Matthew’s Gospel, the prophetic descriptions of the Christian life called the Beatitudes or blessedness, a reward attached to each, and then the transformation of the law from divinely given rule to the very form of the redeemed heart.
Given the classical expectation regarding happiness and virtue, Aristotle’s eudaimonia or good-spiritedness as the result of natural virtue, Jesus’ words in the Beatitudes disappoint; many would find them puzzling, some would find them impossible, for the heart of natural man does not reach out to embrace poverty of spirit and mourning, to say nothing of persecution. Yet the Beatitudes are signposts along the royal road that leads citizens of a fallen world to the vision of God, to sonship, and to citizenship in the kingdom of heaven, a description of the realm of Our Father that stands contrasted with the kingdom of the earth.
Humility, sorrow for one’s sins, gentleness, desire for God, mercifulness, purity of heart, peacemaking, acceptance of persecution for Jesus’ sake; Jesus is describing God-given dispositions of the heart that may or may not always be evident to the world in actions. Indeed to the degree that any Beatitude excites public notice, it is in danger of betraying its divine purpose; humility and piety displayed already have their reward (Matt. 6:1). Later, in the series of dominical sayings beginning with “You have heard it said but I tell you,” there will be specific teaching that tells the blessed heart how to live in the world (Matt. 5:21–7:29).
The Beatitudes have been the subject of commentary by great teachers, but generations lacking scholarly insight have also understood his words as they walked in the way. Jesus, who knew what was in mankind (John 2:25), begins with the counsel that one who would be blessed will be humble, which means seeing oneself as one really is: a creature, clay in the Potter’s hands, helpless in the one thing that matters most despite possessing many impressive competencies, reliance upon which as justifying before God is always deceptive (Isa. 29:16, Jer. 18:6, Rom. 9:21). “Blessed are the poor in spirit.” God is forever ordering the moral universe by putting down the mighty from their seat and exalting the humble (Luke 1:52).
Jesus reminds his followers to seek the lowest place, assuring them that the order of this world is not the order of the kingdom of heaven; there many of the first shall be last and the last first (Mark 9:35). He opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble (James 4:10). “He has scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts [. . .] and exalted those of low degree” (Luke 1:31– 32). God’s opposition to the proud is a lesson humankind must repeatedly learn, rooted in the very nature of God, in whose sight a lie cannot stand, and who while summary of power and majesty, expresses his life in Trinitarian self-giving, the divine Son humbling himself for our sakes, “who being in the form of God did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped” (Phil. 2:6). To fail of humility and to cultivate pride is to fail to see things as they are; a broken and contrite heart God does not despise (Ps. 51:17).
This was the great lesson given Job, a good man, whom God never accuses of sins, but a man “wise in his own conceits” (37:24), clinging in the most subtle and unrealistic way to his own rightness before God, redeemed only when, having had his ignorance and littleness demonstrated by the Almighty most dramatically (38–41), he falls silent before the gift of the vision of God: “Now my eye sees Thee” (42:5). So, the Beatitudes open by declaring blessed one who is ptōxoi in spirit, a word for which the least dramatic definition is “poor in spirit,” but connoting a deeper range of meanings that include “crushed, beggarly, mean or low.”
The reference is clearly not to lack of this world’s goods, but to that abandonment of self which opens upon the faith of the elect. There was a reason for Saul’s having changed his name from that of the great king to Paul, which resonated with the Greek word for mean, of no account. The central psychological mystery of the religion Jesus taught is the necessity for that reordering of the soul that sees one’s self in the order of reality as of no account in the light of God’s glory, as deserving his wrath in the light of his justice.
The self-deception called pride is the natural defense of every man from this truth. Enjoying justly some human esteem, avoiding public shame, capable of good deeds—God never accused Job of moral failure— mankind will find it easy to ignore that fact that our decency is fragile, our self-interest perfect, our thirst for something other than the righteousness of God ever-present. There is a sweetness in reality, always hard for the sin-encased soul to see, and perhaps especially hard to see in an age when self-esteem is considered a cardinal virtue. But it is the locating of one’s self rightly in God’s just order that is a sign of blessedness, and this awareness of who we are is the basis of every other Beatitude and the ground of every gratitude. The poor in spirit are blessed because theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
The interior greatness of every human action on earth is rooted in the acknowledged littleness of every man before the glory and majesty of God. This humility, this poverty of spirit, has as its companion the reality of sorrow for sin and sinfulness (5:5). “Blessed are those who mourn; they shall be comforted.” Christians are never encouraged to ruminate on past failures; we are ever to be putting behind us the past with its failure and looking to the future, “forgetting what lies behind, pressing forward and straining forward to what lies ahead” (Phil. 3:14).
But for the burden of our actual sins, forgiven but perhaps still bearing the debt of undischarged penance, our weakness and instability in the face of temptation, not despair but holy sorrow is the medicine for the soul. The great spiritual writers seem inhumane when they counsel against light-mindedness and denounce hilarity as being inappropriate to the pilgrim, but life is in the end no laughing matter. To have holy sorrow is to begin to hate that to which we have been attracted. This is the happy sorrow that is blessed. God, we are promised, will wipe away every tear from our eyes (Rev. 21:4), but to enjoy that supernatural friendship there first must be tears of sorrow.
The word translated meek (praus) in the third Beatitude is equally well, or better, translated “gentle.” Jesus will say, “Learn from me, for I am gentle and humble of heart, and you will find rest for your souls” (Matt. 29:11). And again Jesus quotes Isaiah: “Your king comes to you, gentle, seated upon an ass, and upon the foal of an ass” (Matt. 21:5, Is. 62:11). It is these, the meek, the gentle, who, contrary to the claims of power, will inherit the earth when it is God’s earth again. The adjective used in Matthew 5 occurs only four times in the New Testament, but as the abstract noun “gentleness” Paul includes it among the fruits of the Spirit in Galatians 5:22.
To be gentle is to refrain from using power rightly possessed to achieve a purpose that, while it may be just, reads out the moral requirement of the second commandment, love your neighbor as you love yourself, by imposing one’s own just will without mercy. Jesus assures his followers that it is not the grasping and aggressive but the gentle who will inherit the earth. The divine ground of Christian gentleness is the Lord’s willingness to show us just so much of himself as we can bear, to enwrap his power in his humility. He did not cling to his divine nature in a way that prevented his display of that divine gentleness that is the unvarying companion of his majestic justice. The images of Jesus with the woman at the well, calling little children to himself, not condemning Peter and the twelve when they cannot watch for one hour, and washing his disciples’ feet, have always engaged the Christian heart.
Gentleness is the choice of reserve rather than rashness; in its most common form it is the gentleness of politeness, standing aside for another, not claiming the highest place, that will find fruit in the gentled civilization founded upon the Beatitudes. What inheriting the earth means is surely that these will inherit the new creation when Christ returns, but it may also means that even now the gentle will know the good life of the soul as it belongs to this present age.
The fourth Beatitude describes the blessed soul as one who hungers and thirsts for righteousness. Jesus is not speaking of the desire to be righteous as the Pharisees on a certain day might have understood righteousness, but of the desire to be in communion with God, to be right-hearted in relation to the creator and redeemer, which disposition has itself a justifying power. This is the desire, itself a gift of grace, that shapes life in Christ.
Whether the words belong to the playwright Robert Bolt or to a contemporary account, we are told that when Saint Thomas More mounted the scaffold he tipped the executioner with the words, “Do your work quickly for you send me to God,” to which the cleric standing by replied, “Are you so certain Sir Thomas?” More replied, “He will not refuse one who is so blithe to come to him.” Those who hunger for righteousness will be satisfied. This blessed hunger, this holy restlessness, made ever memorable by Augustine’s words, “Our hearts are restless until they find their rest in Thee,” is the gift to every person who will listen, for we will in the end achieve what we have desired.
If our wills are formed to the neglect of God who is reality, the end may be darkness and waste. But for those who can grasp just one of the rays of glory that God has scattered across the world, who can long for something other than themselves, there is the promise of satisfaction, of the fullness of which the world offers a thousand intimations.
This hunger for God leads through the trials of life to our sharing in the great banquet that every Eucharist foreshadows. “Blessed are the merciful for they shall obtain mercy.” The Christian call to mercy is founded in God’s own mercy to us. That mercy, rooted in his justice, began in his will never to abandon his rebellious creation but rather to heal it through long ages. In the fullness of time his plan was perfected in the merciful gift of his Son who brought regenerating life with water and the spirit, giving those he called the white robe of justification at baptism (Tim. 1:4–7, Rev. 7:9).
At the sixteenth-century Council of Trent when, Luther’s advocacy of justification by faith alone having raised the issue, the question arose as to whether, having been made righteous once and perfectly through the gift of baptism, the wayfarer at life’s end, having marred the robe of baptismal purity, required and would be offered a second justification by the merits of Christ’s passion, the conciliar conclusion was in the negative. Christians are assured that, while called to be perfect, “If we say we have not sinned we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins he is faithful and just and will forgive our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness (1 John 1:8–10).
For our post-baptismal sinfulness the Church offers the repentant the mercy of true forgiveness, sealed by the power of the keys (Matt. 16:19, John 20:19–23). And for the still imperfect heart, marked with holy sorrow and freed of any note of rebellion, there is the merciful fire of purgatory, a state imagined differently in different ages but one whose end is certain: the fruition of life in the vision of God. This is the ultimate mercy promised by the fifth Beatitude: the merciful will obtain mercy. This greatest mercy, this perfecting love, rooted in God’s own mercy, is the hope of Christians, shining down the days of every life and inspiring the gentling of the world by those who have been shown mercy. The apostle James writes, “So speak and so act as those who are to be judged under the law of liberty. For judgment is without mercy to one who has shown no mercy; yet mercy triumphs over judgement” (2:13).
Since Paul wrote to the Corinthians of the necessary purification of the elect by fire, it has ever been the teaching of the Church that those faithful in whom love exists but which has not found full fruition will by the mercy of Christ be perfected in holiness after death (1 Cor. 3:10–15). But pure in heart we all then will be. This mercy is then the ever present background for the making of the pure heart which has as its purpose and reward the renewal of that conversation which sin interrupted in the garden. This is the mercy of the love that will not let us go until we are fit for the innumerable company of angels, the spirits of just men made perfect, and God who is the judge of all (Heb. 12:22). “Blessed are the pure in heart for they shall see God.” The creation of the clean heart is ever the master-work of the apostolic mission, a work which while it begins with the proclamation of the Gospel is effective in the sacraments, with the elect, God’s chosen, being perfected by the means to holiness Jesus purchased with his death, when the Holy Spirit came with his regenerating gift of baptism and with forgiveness and communion that light the Christian way.
The heart sees; it has an eye which, sin-clouded, cannot behold its maker. Purity of heart is a way, a praxis, that requires more than emptying the soul of evil like the demon-cleansed house in Matthew 12:43–45 that soon was to be filled with demons more vicious than the first. Purity of heart requires that the house of the soul be filled with the light of grace by the Holy Spirit; the human heart cannot be purified of sin without being filled by God, and then, the eye of the soul wiped clean, we will see. Peacemakers, says the seventh Beatitude, are the sons of God, whose will is that peace of the kingdom that Augustine calls the order of tranquility.
The rhetoric of the world has as its underlying purpose incitement to strife, to emulation, to aggression, to self-pity, grievance, and ultimately to perpetual warfare. God’s sons, his children, bring peace into the world by bearing rather than striking, by walking the extra mile when one has already walked as far as justice requires, by giving more than is just. The presence of evil in the world is never mitigated until it is borne. Those who enjoy the blessings of the first seven Beatitudes will be rewarded with citizenship in the kingdom of heaven, and inevitably will be persecuted by that mystery of evil called the world.
For the first three centuries, and even now, faithfulness might mean death. But presently in the West that persecution will not often be with rack and rope; it cannot be resisted with any violence, only with patience and finally suffering, but it will nonetheless be real. Christians living through modernity know what it is, if not to be reviled publicly, to be held in gentle contempt and on a certain day to be thought an enemy of all that is best by one’s neighbor. Less obvious is the persecution inherent in the world that while it assaults the senses allures with the enchantment of technology’s transcendence over nature, offering comforts that often seem to render restraint and discipline pointless.
This new war with the world does not threaten with the executioner’s fire and lions, but with the subtle luring of the soul into self-willed pusillanimity. Bearing the cross and denying oneself in a culture whose ignorance of the true dimensions of life makes such actions meaningless, may seem harder to bear than the inquisitor’s fire. Yet living a life that bears witness when one can never know the world is listening makes Christians part of that great company who, beginning with the prophets whom Israel despised and persecuted, have been a light in this world, and who have ever been rewarded with the presence of God.
Jesus’ description of the gift of blessedness to the soul is followed by the images of salt and light that establish the character of Christian witness in the world. Christ’s followers are the salt of the world, and in that sense a gift to it, but if the salt has lost its savor, “What is there left to give taste to it?” It is Christian witness that lifts up the world in hope. This witness is a light that is not to be put under a barrel but lifted high, set on a lampstand so that the Christian way can shine brightly before men who see its good works and glorify our Father in heaven.
Having described the blessedness that belongs to the kingdom, its consequences for believers, persecution, and the necessity of their witness in the world, Jesus turns to the question raised persistently by the charge of the Pharisees that he and his disciples have no regard for the Law of Moses. His disciples pluck grain from the fields on the Sabbath (Matt. 12:1); he eats with sinners, and without ritual purification (Matt. 15:1). So, Jesus will assure the Pharisees of every age: “Think not that I have come to abolish the Law and the Prophets; I have come not to destroy the law but to fulfill them. For truly I say to you, till heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot will pass from the law until all is accomplished,” until the holy ones who are the citizens of the kingdom are called and fulfilled.
And then the warning and the promise to teachers: “Whoever relaxes one of the least of these commandments and teaches men to do so shall be called least in the kingdom, but who obeys them and teaches them shall be called great” (Matt. 5:13). And the new standard: Unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, those whose whole work is fulfilling the propositions of the law while leaving the heart in shadow, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. And how is this to be achieved? By entering perfectly into the love of the Lord through the door to that interior castle, the will. Hardly a new idea: “You shall love the Lord with all your heart, soul, and mind.”
But what Jesus does not reveal in this place is the fact that this new law will require a new heart which can only be formed by his Pentecostal gift his death will bring. Six times the phrase “You have heard it said” is repeated, to be followed by “But I tell you.” What has been said by men of old is the Law of Moses. What Jesus teaches those listening is the new law of the heart that places moral weight not in good deeds, although these will follow, but in the renewed will. It is not what goes into a man that defiles him, the working of the world upon us is to be borne; what makes the man is that expression of the heart that forms our words and actions (Matt. 15:11).
The renewal Christ commands surpasses the righteousness of the Pharisees for it will make men and women of a flawed and fallen world citizens fit for eternal life in the kingdom of the new heart. The first contrast between what has been said and the new law teaches that the death and destruction that characterize life and history begin with contempt, anger, and insult, which can only be amended by the willingness to ask forgiveness, perhaps even when just grounds for anger are present. Be reconciled to your brother before you offer your sacrifice. Litigiousness and contentiousness unlamented lead to prison from which you will not escape until justice has been fully served (5:25–26). It is not enough to refrain from adultery; one must reject from the heart the desire for the pleasurable possession of one not yours but another’s, for the settled desire is as good as the deed done (27).
There is then the new law of language: abjure hyperbolic claims that presume a power you do not have. Jerusalem is not yours but is the city of the great king; you cannot make one hair of your head white or black (5:33–36). And do not take refuge in ambiguity; let your pledged word be sealed with a yes or no (37). This means that in the kingdom of the new heart the duty of the rhetor and the author, of every man as he speaks and writes, is to be ever obedient to the reality of the thing, whether it be an object or an idea or an emotion. And as for revenge, give it up, putting it away with the willingness to bear something, to do more than the importunate or the would-be oppressor asks. And this turns upon the extension of the second great commandment to include not only the neighbor, but the neighbor who wishes you harm (5:43–48). “An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth” had been at the heart of justice as the Old Covenant commended it. It was a principle of Greek morality that revenge was the justifying motive of morality, but among Jesus’ followers, something is to be borne.
Of the six contrasts through which Jesus teaches, the most shocking to his hearers was surely the abrogating of divorce, which had been allowed, as Jesus would tell his disciple in the nineteenth chapter of Matthew, because of the hardness of men’s hearts, but which now was to be done away with in obedience to God’s will as expressed in the primordial unity of man and woman in the Garden; “It was not so in the beginning” (19:8). This renewed vision of marriage would be developed by Saint Paul with the analogy of the relation of husband and wife to the indissoluble union between Christ and the Church (Eph 5:25). But in the context of Matthew 5, Jesus only teaches that, assuming the divine justice of the Edenic disposition to be true, putting a wife away inevitably sends her into another household and to another husband, if not into the street, and by doing so makes both her and the head of the household into which she may have been taken adulterers. Jesus’ teaching on divorce would be put forward fully in chapter 19:3–12, where divorce would be seen as a violation of God’s will that “the two shall become one” (5).
The disciples answered for fallen mankind: “If it is this way between a man and woman, better not marry.” This might have been said of the entire body of Jesus’ teaching in the Sermon on the Mount. If it is this way; forego revenge, love your enemies, abjure contempt and insult, walk the second mile, achieve purity of heart, who can bear it? But the divine teaching of Matthew 5 does not consist of moral maxims addressed to the world but to citizens of the kingdom of the new hearts that Pentecost will bring. These six recastings of the law in Matthew 5 offer the clear outlines of the new way of life that marks the kingdom. They are redolent of the nobility of the faith and presuppose the humility the giver of the new law displayed on the night he was betrayed (John 13:1–17).
Jesus’ sermon on the mountainside was the foundation, laying down the principles of the way that would blossom from his words after his sacrifice made the new heart a possibility and a reality through the gift of the indwelling Advocate and Comforter at Pentecost. “I tell you the truth: it is to your advantage that I go away; the Counselor will not come to you, but if I go, I will send him to you” (John 16:7). The Spirit comes with power to confirm memory and to lead into all truth, to comfort, to convict, and to convert, and to give the peace the world cannot give, and finally, our work done, to bring us to himself.
The Holy Spirit redefines the meaning of life and of history. Sin is now not simply a violation of the law but failure to believe Christ’s words and to accept the gifts that make for holiness. Righteousness is rightness of the heart formed by faith and by participation in Christ through his sacramental gifts so as to become a new creature. Mankind is made for the holiness that pleases God, enabling the sons of Adam at last to enter the conversation that was forestalled when our first parents chose the serpent’s way.
The entire Pentecostal faith, with its promise of forgiveness and the reward of communion introduced the waiting world to the great adventure that gave every man the possibility of becoming a new creature. Thus it would be that when Christians began to write they would turn to this text, to Matthew 5 and 6, to discover the foundations of the kingdom of the new heart. Other Matthean texts would be cited by writers of the post-apostolic age, the apocalypse of chapters twenty-four and twenty-five would find a permanent place in Christian faith, and the Gospel parables have never ceased to form Christian conscience and imagination: the wicked servant who, having been mercifully forgiven his debt, grasps his fellow servant by the throat demanding payment of the small debt owed him (18:20–35); the householder who gave those who had labored little as much as those who had labored long because it was his to be gracious as he chose (20:1–16); the king who gave a wedding feast to which many refused to come, and one who did was cast out as not being properly attired (22:1–14); and the parable of the talents.
These would always engage and teach, but it was the words of Chapters 5 and 6 that rippled out from a mountainside in Galilee to make a new world. The teaching of the new way issued in a new piety, with prayer, almsgiving, and sacrifice; things not to be done in order to be seen by men or to earn their approval, but privately and without calculation (6:1–15). Jesus’ followers do not need to storm heaven with many words, for they do not like the prophets of Baal need to arouse God with their shouts. Christian prayer is made in the knowledge that Our Father in heaven knows what we and every other creature needs this day, for the new heart beats within its living relationship to the ever-providential God who made it.
The first petition of the great prayer recognizes with praise that God’s name, that is his being, is holy, asking that his will, reigning gloriously in heaven, may soon be perfected in the Church and in the world. The words, “Give us this day our daily bread,” have been variously understood because the word for “daily” may be understood to mean “supersubstantial” rather than daily in the ordinary sense, so that the prayer for daily bread refers as well to Eucharistic bread.
There follows the petition that our debts or transgressions may be forgiven as we forgive others, a reference to both the fifth Beatitude above and to 6:14–15 below. “If you forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly father also will forgive you.” Always considered the first Gospel, Matthew, with the Beatitudes and Jesus’ perfecting of the law, “You have heard it said of old, but I tell you,” laid the foundation for the life of the new heart that his sacrifice would bring to the world, accomplishing in the elect the perfect virtue that the philosophers and Pharisees had foreseen but which the fallen could never accomplish apart from the cross of Christ and the regenerating Pentecostal gift he bought.
When Jesus sat down on a hillside in Galilee to teach, his words made a new world.
The image shows, “Sermon on the Mount,” by Ivan Makarov, painted in 1889.
Celebrated with great pomp at the end of the last century, the bicentenary of the French Revolution (1789-1989) did not fail to rekindle debates and controversies over the interpretation of the event. Many French intellectuals and academics were still dreaming of the “blessed” era when Clemenceau invited them to take the “Revolution as a bloc.” After all, it was justifiable or excusable for them to pass over in silence the Terror, the Vendée “genocide,” the terrible treatments inflicted by the Republic and its leaders on “monsters,” “sub-humans,” the “execrable race,” that it was appropriate to “exterminate” or “purge” the nation.
Under blows from foreign authors, in particular English-speaking ones, it had to be admitted that the “heroes” of the revolutionary gesture could not escape historical research. The corruption of Danton, the intrigues of Mirabeau, the paranoid delirium of Robespierre, the fanaticism of Saint-Just, the violence of Marat, the deceit of Hébert, the villainy of Barras were very troublesome. These men hardly corresponded to the idealized image that Republican education (primary and secondary school) had long given of this period to legitimize the foundations of a regime that had become uncertain. How many already seemed old and outdated, such as, the Robespierrolatry of a Laponneraye (1842), or the hagiographies of Danton by Quinet (1865), of Saint-Just by Hamel (1859) or of Hébert by Tridon (1864). But on the whole, the myth of the Revolution as a veritable monolithic bloc still held firm. No one imagined the magnitude of the earthquake that a group of researchers and academic historians would cause in the late 1980s.
For nearly two centuries, the theories of interpretation of the Revolution have opposed each other and clashed. But justification, advocacy, and respect for the vulgate remained the rule of research and higher education – a strict, imperative prescription that no reasonable researcher could break without risking his career.
Diverse and contradictory, the theses and interpretative theories of the French Revolution can be grouped into three categories. Of course, the historiography of the subject cannot be reduced to these three antagonistic schools, but this classification at least has the merit of clarity and convenience.
The first school of thought sees the Revolution as a mythical phenomenon, as a revelation of absolute values pushed onto the stage of history under the pressure of Justice, Liberty and the People. Suddenly enlightened and responding to the call of revolutionary divinities, the People spontaneously revolted against tyranny. The archetype of this dogmatic literature is the Histoire de la Révolution française by Jules Michelet, published from 1847 to 1853. It is perpetuated, to varying degrees, in the spirit of primary and secondary education textbooks and in cultural news delivered by the mainstream media. We find it sometimes in the liberal-Jacobin form, sometimes in the socialist form, the latter mainly deriving from L’histoire socialiste de la Révolution française, by Jean Jaurès (1901-1904).
Finally, a third school, that of the “traditionalist” or “counter-revolutionary” current (Edmund Burke, Joseph de Maistre, Louis de Bonald) considered the Terror as the fruit of the principles of 1789 and, more generally, that revolutionary logic inevitably leads to terror. One part of this approach, the supporters of a conspiracy theory, refers primarily to the works of the Jesuits Augustin Barruel and Nicolas Deschamps, or to those of Crétineau-Joly and Monseigneur Delassus. According to them, the French Revolution was the fruit of a triple conspiracy hatched by Jansenism, Masonry and other sects such as the Illuminati of Bavaria. This conspiracy theory has been the subject of fierce criticism from pro-revolutionary historiography, deeming it fanciful and untrustworthy. However, it received an unexpected reinforcement from Marxist or socialist historians, like Albert Mathiez, and Freemasons, like Albert Lantoine and Louis Blanc, who, without using the term “conspiracy,” insisted heavily on the “project” and on the “plan” of the Jacobin group and of the Masons, which could not be fully realized, solely because of the lack of maturity of the masses and their ignorance.
The proponents of this third school of thought point out that for the most conscious protagonists of the Revolution, the revolutionary movement was imagined and executed against Christianity, against the Church and in the last analysis against God. This is the thesis set out in the works of Louis Daménie, La Révolution (1970), and Jean Dumont, La Révolution française, ou, Les prodiges du sacrilège (1984), for whom the Revolution was persecuting and oppressive of the Church and the people, of God, because it was anti-Christian, capitalist and bourgeois.
Since the 19th century the various currents dominating French political life have not ceased to oppose and tear each other apart on the subject. On the right, for the Orleanists, the Bonapartists and soon the nationalists, 1789 is sacred, 1793 is hated. For legitimists and traditionalists, the distinction is not appropriate: 1789 announces 1793. With them, Maurras’s Action Française placed a heavy responsibility on an Old regime that had been contaminated for too long. On the left, they chose 1793. The left said, “No” to so-called human rights that it stigmatizes as individual, formal and bourgeois rights. The fascists of the 20th century followed suit. Drieu la Rochelle explained that Hitlerites and Mussolinians wanted to break with the legacy of 1789, which was liberal, but not with that of 1793, which was Jacobin and totalitarian.
For more than a century and a half, the battles of the Revolution, like its internal struggles, were an inexhaustible fuel for the political battles and ideological quarrels of the time. Under Louis Philippe (1830-1848), after the adventures of the Revolution and the Empire, French liberalism drew lessons from the double experience. It refocused on the right. The golden mean, eclecticism, compromise, seeking the middle ground were now the watchwords. A moderate historiography was forged by Thiers (Histoire de la Révolution, 1827) and Lamartine (Histoire des Girondins, 1847). But gradually the official discourse was radicalized on the left.
At the turn of the 20th century, outside of the usual minority, the “Revolution” was taboo. Its protests were sometimes seen as unpleasant, but it was also seen as the necessary step in achieving universal equality, freedom and prosperity. The basis of the consensus rested on a few words: “Let us forget, and do not question what is achieved.”
The first specialized chair in the history of the Revolution was created at the Sorbonne in 1866, on the initiative of the Council of Paris. It was occupied by Alphonse Aulard. The act was clearly political. Aulard until then taught only literature and philology. On the other hand, he was an ardent republican, appreciated by the authorities and by Clemenceau. Radical and aggressive, he was soon overtaken on his leftism by his pupil and rival, Albert Mathiez. The master was radical and anticlerical, the disciple was radical-socialist and Robespierrist. The two antagonists imposed their truth on the Sorbonney.
Allied to communism in 1917, Mathiez presented himself and imposed himself for succession to Aulard in 1926. To his posterity belonged primarily Georges Lefebvre, Albert Soboul, Michel Vovelle and Claude Mazauric – and later, in the 2000s, the pure Jacobins, Jean-Pierre Jessenne and Michel Briard. All were or had been militants, sympathizers or “fellow travelers” of the Communist Party. They reigned almost unchallenged over the French University for more than forty years. “The Revolution,” historian Pierre Chaunu would say, “was the privileged place of ideological manipulation padlocked by a Sorbonicole nomenklatura from Mathiez to Soboul… Masters who knew the way, ensured the scholastic self-functioning in a vacuum closed by the monopoly of recruitment.” They have thus built “one of the most beautiful monuments of institutionalized stupidity” (Le Figaro, December 17, 1984).
After the Second World War, the ideological and cultural hegemony of Marxism oriented and directed official historiography. In the 1960s, Albert Soboul still appeared as “the great specialist whose work is essential.” Intellectual terrorism marginalized or condemned to silence the independent, non-conformist researcher. The revolutionary catechism mechanically identified revolutionaries with the capitalist bourgeoisie.
This catechism made 1789 the first step in a process of which 1917 and the Russian Revolution was the final step. This thereby legitimized the Jacobin=Bolshevik equation.
But times and fashions change. The 1970s and the beginning of the 1980s were marked by a major break. English-speaking historians, little suspecting of espousing the quarrels of French academics, were the first to open the breach. Let us take two titles among others. The first, The Debate on the French Revolution, 1789–1800 by Alfred Cobban, was published in 1950 and translated into French in 1984, after the author’s death. This incisive book helped shake the commonplaces and conventionalisms of the Marxist vulgate, destroying the simplistic thesis of a bourgeois and capitalist revolution which would have replaced an old feudal regime.
Not everything is memorable in Cobban’s work. Thus, he is wrong when he insists on the population explosion. Pierre Chaunu demonstrated, with Jacques Dupâquier and Jean-Pierre Bardet, that France was the country in Europe where the population had increased the least (from 22 to 28 million in a century), and whose demographic dynamism was broken, everywhere, twenty years before 1789. But we must nevertheless salute in Cobban the first truly operative iconoclastic approach.
A second English, quite remarkable, should be cited – The French Revolution and the Poor by Alan Forrest, 1981 (translated into French in 1986), in which the author masterfully dismantles the mechanism of the evils of revolutionary ideology, the deadly refusal of realities on the part of revolutionary leaders.
François Furet and Denis Richet took up where these two English-world authors left off. In La Révolution française (1965), they tackled the already old thesis of the slippage from a first liberal revolution of the elites to a second Jacobin revolution. From a position that was still on the left, since they refused to take the plunge and to think that 1793 could have been contained to a certain extent in 1789; or, in other words, they refuse to think that the logic of the revolution carried massacre, extermination and genocide within it. Nevertheless, they did undermine Marxist dogmas.
A former communist (1947-1959), François Furet did not yet distinguish clearly enough between Jacobin liberalism (Latin, essentially egalitarian), from English liberalism (essentially elitist or even aristocratic). But in 1978, in Penser la Révolution, he rehabilitated the forgotten and proscribed analyses of Tocqueville, of Taine, even of Augustin Cochin. Notably absent in his book is Edmund Burke, the brilliant Irishman who differentiated 1793 from 1790. Furet’s work was later continued by Patrice Gueniffey (see, La politique de la Terreur: essai sur la violence révolutionnaire, 1789-1794). But it may also be useful to recall the words that Pierre Chaunu confided to me: “When Furet and I discuss in private the origins, causes and consequences of the Revolution, know that we are 90% in agreement.”
An important point must be stressed – the reflection initiated by French academic historians on revolutionary terror comes at the very moment when Marxist ideology is experiencing its first major cultural setbacks. At the top of the state (François Mitterrand was then president), reactions were quick to come. Max Gallo, spokesman for the socialist government, was sounding the alarm bells.
Gallo, historian, novelist and essayist, a former Communist who joined the PS in 1981, then reacted as the guardian of the temple. He left the Socialist Party and supported Sarkozy’s UMP in 2007, but in the 1980s, he was at the forefront of the political and cultural struggle of the Mitterrandist left. Censoring the new Muscadins in an Open Letter to Maximilien Robespierre, he churned out articles and virulent statements against them in the media. The politically condemned academics were accused of nothing less than Vichyism, even Nazi nostalgia. They were “guilty,” he said, of spreading a “right-wing” vision of the Great Revolution. Behind him were the ex-fellow travelers of the communist organizers, responsible for more than 100 million deaths around the world. All shamelessly set themselves up as masters of republican morality. Ridicule is not fatal!
It did not matter to Gallo and his political friends at the time that non-university historians, such as Jean-François Chiappe or Jean Dumont, published anti-revolutionary works. What was unbearable and unacceptable to them was “the betrayal of the University.”
One of the main targets of the socialist authorities was Pierre Chaunu, professor at the Sorbonne, member of the Institut de France (of the l’Académie des sciences morales et politiques). The prestige of this Protestant historian was considerable. Renowned Hispanist (author with his wife Huguette Chaunu ofSéville et l’Atlantique, 1504-1650, in 11 volumes), specialist in classical European civilization (La civilisation de l’Europe classique), and enlightenment civilization in Europe (La civilisation de l’Europe des Lumières), founder of “quantitative history,” he was one of the outstanding figures of French academia.
The genocide thesis was supported by Reynald Sécher first in 1986 and 25 years later in Du génocide au mémoricide. The Robespierrist point of view, denying the genocide, is still developed in particular by Jean-Clément Martin. The losses are estimated at a minimum of 100,000 souls from a total population of 800,000 inhabitants.
Clearly, the death of Lenin-Soviet eschatology has done immense damage to the Marxist and crypto-Marxist historiography of the French Revolution. The simplistic idea, popularized by vulgar Marxism, that the French Revolution is a bourgeois revolution which destroyed feudalism and replaced it with a new, essentially capitalist regime, is totally questioned. The objections are significant.
Professor Emmanuel Leroy Ladurie, himself a former Communist, sums them up in these terms: “The first is that the bourgeoisie which made the revolution is not a capitalist class of financiers, traders or industrialists, who were then ‘apolitical’ or ‘aristocrats.’” The bourgeoisie was thus juridical; it was composed of officers, civil servants, lawyers, doctors, intellectuals, whose role and action could not consist in giving birth to an industrial revolution. Second objection, the example of England shows that in a rural society, like 18th century France, the evolution towards agricultural capitalism passed through the great seigniorial domain. On the contrary, the Revolution tended towards the fragmentation of farms and further retarded their technological progress. Finally, the third objection, “it put a definite halt to big capitalism, that is to say, colonial capitalism, foreign trade and big industries.” Foreign trade did not regain its high level of 1789 until 1825. The Revolution “represented in a sense the triumph of the landed strata of society, conservatives, large and small, including many former nobles… a landed bourgeoisie… and finally small peasant owners” (Le Figaro, December 17, 1984).
The revolutionary explosion of the summer of 1789 appears to be the culmination of the contradictions of the Ancien Régime, which was unable to reform in time. At the origin of the Revolution there was the financial crisis – the debt had become too heavy a burden for the finances of the kingdom. The expenses of the American War were too great. After forty years of economic expansion and prosperity, the situation deteriorated in the 1780s. A succession of bad harvests, the great drought of 1785, and a particularly harsh winter increased the difficulties.
At the same time, an “aristocratic reaction” from the traditional nobility and the nobility of the robe challenged absolute monarchy and demanded parliamentary control, which would allow it to better retain its privileges and prerogatives in the face of the rise of a bourgeoisie that desired its share of power. To this can be added the evolution of ideas, the social critiques of Jean-Jacques Rousseau and the encyclopedists, the determining role of “Sociétés de pensée.” Finally, we must also take into account the errors of Louis XVI, who was undoubtedly a good man, but who was not on top of things.
Scientific history has shown that the Revolution ruined France; that it broke its economic momentum; and that it downgraded it. This is the conclusion of the most serious studies. Le livre noir de la Révolution française, published in 2008, leaves little room for doubt. But while academic research has shed all kinds of light on the horrific gray areas of the French Revolution, its results still needed to be accessible to the general public. Pierre Chaunu achieved this objective, thanks to a comprehensive, rigorous and attractive work, Le grand déclassement (1989), about which it is appropriate to say a few words.
Republican, Protestant and Gaullist, hardly suspected of sympathy for the “complex of counterrevolutionary sensibilities,” Pierre Chaunu (1923-2009) has undermined the sacrosanct myth of the two revolutions, one liberal, the other authoritarian, centralizing, liberticide – striking head-on one of the pillars of official historiography. And he got it right.
Let us sum up his argument. In 1789, France was roughly fifth in size, in Europe; but in power, it commanded nearly a third of available resources. Overall, she was pretty much the first. An example – the literacy rate was higher in England, Scotland and a few provinces of Prussia, but France had many more literate people than England, Scotland, Prussia and practically as many as the rest of Europe. Between 1710 and 1780, the number of those who reached the stage of independent reading and fluent writing tripled and quadrupled. After the great ebb that the Revolution brought about in this area, in which progress did not resume until 1830.
In 1789, France had at least 28 million inhabitants. Its population growth rate of 0.5% per year was one of the lowest, if not the lowest, in Europe. 16% of the population was urban. The distribution of the population was relatively more equitable than in the rest of Europe. Two million households owned 40% of the land (with some 5% of communal property). The rest of the land belonged to the nobility (25%). Finally, 10% was Church property, and 25% bourgeois property. The Third Estate therefore owned 65% of the land and the so-called “clergy” were, in large part, social assets, that supplied schools and hospitals. Peasant property was encumbered with seigneurial rights, but they were more irritating and vexatious than limiting. Common land was more expensive on average than noble land.
Overall, seigneurial rights were less heavy in France than anywhere else on the continent, except in England. Nowhere else was peasant ownership so widespread.
England broke the record in the West for the concentration of land in a few hands. But in France, the Revolution would not change anything. Since taxes were generally heavier afterwards, the levy on the peasant mass was roughly the same in 1815 as in 1789. Social upheavals affected only one tenth of the population at most. The Revolution only distributed a tenth or a fifth in value of a good part of the land, and therefore brought wealth and prestige to just a minority of its apparatchiks and associates. It was all really restricted to a few permutations at the top.
In 1758, the tax burden per capita was double in England, being around 190 in 1789, while France was at 100. At equal wealth, from the second half of the 18th century, the English paid at least one and a half times as much as the French. France, a tax haven, would nevertheless engage in a rotating strike. Almost 15% of the GNP and 3.5% of the population were in the service of the state. The King of France had 10 times fewer men on hand to control his capital than the King of Prussia, or the British Parliament.
The entire 18th century was driven by the halt that the Parliaments, recklessly reestablished in their prerogatives by Louis XVI, brought to the ministerial reform initiative. Here was the drama of the monarchy. From 1774 to 1789, the Parliaments, where only the privileged strata of society were to be found, were the winners across the board. The Ancien Régime was paralyzed by the encroachment of the law. Parliaments do not represent society, either in their composition or in their thoughts. The court was never less costly, yet its usefulness never less evident. The system was jammed, unable to match its resources to its needs; it was considered tyrannical when it was only powerless.
In 1789, most French people were Catholics and most were devout – 97 to 98% of the French people believed in God, more than 80% were attached to their Church. On the intellectual and moral quality of the clergy and on their generosity, which redistributed a good half to the poor and a share to hospital and school assistance, there was no real criticism, no bad marks. Better, the almost unanimous claim of the register of grievances is that the priests, who were well-loved and whose worth was widely felt, should be give more.
Finally, no one died had of hunger since 1709. It was not until 1794-1795 and run-away inflation that the specter of famine loomed again and that people died from it as before. In the 1780s, faced with a population growing at a rate of 0.5% annually (a growth rate lower than the English rate), production increased at a rate of 1.9%.
Paradoxically, in general, it is prosperity, not misery, that carries the risk of revolution. French society remained sufficiently open. France lived, changed, evolved. The state was jammed, motionless, paralyzed. Between the two, tensions continued to grow.
The Revolution began with a plunder, the easiest – that of the property of the Church. Monastic France was soon sold. The finest jewels of Romanesque and Gothic art were broken. They were removed, disassembled, sawed apart, broken, looted. The artistic rampage was immense. No modern war has destroyed so much wealth.
The Revolution was not the mass phenomenon that they want us to believe. There were 50,000 Parisian sans-culottes, 80,000 profiteers of national property and 200,000 onlookers. The number of angry, hateful and guillotinous dechristianizers hardly exceeded 40,000. But you only win and lose if you convince the small active number.
When, on July 12, 1790, the civil constitution of the clergy was adopted, only 4 bishops out of 136 agreed to swear to the constitution. 44% (40% after withdrawals) of the clergy swore. This is not much, because not to swear meant the loss of employment, of all resources, misery, the threat to freedom and life, banishment from the community. Since dozens of episcopal seats had to be filled all at once, Talleyrand, “a pile of shit in a woolen stocking” as Napoleon called, devoted himself to the task. He was the only one of four bishops who accepted to carry out coronations. All those poor jurat priests, some of whom claimed to have rediscovered the simplicity and rigor of the primitive Church, would know by the end of the winter of 1791 what the words of the constituent deputies were worth – a reprieve for the guillotine.
Thanks to the assignat, famine and the ruin of the economy, people died as much and more than from the guillotine during the winter of 1794-1795. The famous paper money assignat was criminal folly. To pay off its promises, fuel its fantasies and finance the war of aggression against a peaceful Europe, the Revolution had only one means – inflation, the most unjust tax.
The mortal sin of the Revolution was, after religious persecution, gratuitous war. The war allowed murder to be legalized, any internal opponent being equated with foreign enemies.
For the period 1792 to 1797, losses amounted to at least 500,000 men. Disease killed more than bullets (3 to 4 times more). If we add the civilian losses, men, women, children (mainly in Vendée), the losses of the revolutionary period came to cost nearly 1 million human lives. The Empire would add a second million to the first. In total, 4.5 to 5 million dead, in a Europe of less than 150 million souls. The responsibility, all the responsibility for the outbreak of war rests with the revolutionary power. It deliberately chose war; it provoked, attacked, invaded.
The war broke France’s growth; it slowed it down everywhere else, even in Great Britain, but in which case the slowdown only affected consumption. In the France-England equality ratio, we go to a gap of 10 to 6. France had, per capita, caught up with England in 1789; it was in the ratio of 100 to 60-65 in 1799. Ten years of assignats and the great massacres definitively downgraded France. The gap would no longer be made up.
Let Pierre Chaunu conclude in a concise manner: “While all the work of history released from the myth establishes that the chaotic process which created the revolutionary vortex was the effect of chance – September (1792), Fouquier Tinville (public accuser of the Revolutionary Tribunal), ruin by the assignat, and the war, the destruction of the artistic, moral and religious cultural heritage, the depopulation and the devastation of the demographic impetus, the genocide-populicide of the Vendée and the populicides of Lyon, Toulon and elsewhere – all this follows implacably from the most implacable revolutionary logic. Once the Revolution is born, it kills. Death is its profession, annihilation its end.”
Product of chance, execution of a deliberate project, direct or indirect consequence of one or more social factors, the debate on the interpretation of the Revolution is not about to end. But one point is clear – for rigorous and serious history, the Revolution led France to a terrible moral, social, economic and political collapse.
Arnaud Imatz, a Basque-French political scientist and historian, holds a State Doctorate (DrE) in political science and is a correspondent-member of the Royal Academy of History (Spain), and a former international civil servant at OECD. He is a specialist in the Spanish Civil War, European populism, and the political struggles of the Right and the Left – all subjects on which he has written several books. He has also published numerous articles on the political thought of the founder and theoretician of the Falange, José Antonio Primo de Rivera, as well as the Liberal philosopher, José Ortega y Gasset, and the Catholic traditionalist, Juan Donoso Cortés.
The image shows, “The Zenith of French Glory: The Pinnacle of Liberty. Religion, Justice, Loyalty & all the Bugbears of Unenlightend Minds, Farewell!”. A satire of the radicalism of the French Revolution. A picture by James Gillray. February 1793.
This month, we are highly honored to have a conversation with Professor Wayne Cristaudo, philosopher, author, and educator, who has published over a dozen books. He speaks with Dr. Zbigniew Janowski about the predominance, in the West, of idea-brokers, metaphysical rebels and triumph of ideational narratives over life itself. Professor Cristaudo aptly points to the great malaise of the West – its fervent addiction to bad ideas.
Zbigniew Janowski (ZJ): Let me begin this conversation with something that my Canadian colleague said to me when I arrived to teach in Canada—in Halifax—20 years ago. “We are Americans without being arrogant and British without being boastful.” Having never been to Canada before, I was under the impression that Canada is very much like the US.
Then I discovered – or at least what I discovered in Nova Scotia, which is very patriotic, somewhat provincial and certainly less cosmopolitan than the rest of the country – that they value their British roots, which defines their national identity. Most of my colleagues were educated at Cambridge, are Anglican, the system of education – tutorials – is much more like in the UK than in America, the city looks like small British towns, and Canadian flags used to hang on many houses, probably to stress their “independence” from the US. In this part of Canada, Britishness is still, or used to be 20 years ago, part of their identity.
As an Australian, someone from a former British colony, can you say that Australians feel like my Canadian colleague?
Wayne Cristaudo (WC): When speaking of Australians, the same kind of cleavages that are occurring elsewhere in the West between tertiary educated elites and more traditionally minded people, plus demographic changes due to immigration, make it hard to generalize.
David Goodhart in his The Road to Somewhere – largely an attempt to explain Brexit, but also the election of Donald Trump – speaks of two classes today: the “Anywheres,” – i.e. those who are largely free to work and live anywhere and whose sense of identity is bound up with their global opportunities and their own “progressive” values; and the “Somewheres,” those whose location and sense of place and national heritage matters, as they see their localities and values undergoing radical transformations.
This later group also sees itself as having lost the cultural and economic wars. My friend Bob Catley, in response to Goodhart, added that this is something of a misnomer, as the “somewheres” are now the “nowheres;” that is, their world is being destroyed daily.
In Australia, I think those who strongly identify with Britain are now in a minority, as the number of immigrants from non-British backgrounds has risen dramatically in the last few decades. When there was a referendum on Australia becoming a republic some 20 years back, the republican model was rejected. But this was not because of love for the “old mother country,” but because the majority did not like the proposed model that had come out of a publicly funded (ostensibly) representative “elite” forum.
Nevertheless, it is true that Australians would probably rather lose to anyone (New Zealand not included) besides England in any sporting event. We are, though, a deeply fractured society and so appeals to unity tend to ring hollow – as hollow as our terrible national anthem which almost no one can sing through to its bitter end. Like most other Western countries, Australian identity is secondary to some other feature when it comes to political disputation.
ZJ: Canada is part of the Commonwealth, just like Australia. On the Canadian dollar one can see a beautiful image of the British Queen. On the other side of the Canadian dollar, we find a loon. I used to tell my liberally-minded Canadian friends, jokingly, don’t think of seceding from the Crown. Why – they would ask? Because you will have to replace the Queen with another loon, a bear, or a bird.
Australians have the Queen, too, and a kangaroo. This sounds facetious, to be sure, but it touches on the problem of national identity. Cultural identity cannot be rooted in nature. Even Thoreau, who lived in the wilderness and praised nature, was a cultured man, who loved the Classics. In his Walden there is a beautiful chapter on education, in which he urges Americans to read the Greeks.
Do you see any similarities in the cultural and political predicament between Canada and Australia relative to your attachment to the British Crown? Or does the geography of Canada (as a U.S. neighbour) and yours – a continent – and different history (no Royalists [or, United Empire Loyalists] who fled to Canada after the 1776 rebellion) make a difference? For one, you do not seem to feel the same pressure that Canadians do to be more “American,” and thus, having your cultural affinities imposed on you.
WC: While I really have no idea if French Canadians feel any particular cultural connection with Britain, Australia does not have the American neighbour syndrome. As for being free to choose our identity, I think that while Australian tertiary educated people are frequently anti-USA – the USA being seen as the imperialist country which creates wars wherever it goes – it seems to me that the same class of people, especially those who are Australian ideas-brokers, take up every liberal-progressive position that is pushed by, and invariably formulated by, US ideas-brokers in the same professions. That is, our academicians, journalists, teachers, et. al. can be relied upon to repeat and vociferously defend any idea that has gained narrative traction amongst progressives in the US. Ultimately this should not be surprising.
Any collective is a collective because of the stories and experiences it shares. The U.S.-led globalisation of stories through Hollywood, Netflix etc., and the normative appeals that are characteristic of those stories, plays a huge part in how people now understand themselves. So, I don’t really see identity as a matter of choosing or not choosing, but as what people identify with, and presume. And what is occurring is that where narratives are shared and replicated, as part of daily social reproduction, common ways of talking, similar presumptions, expectations, habits (i.e., similar features of identification) are formed.
For example, the elite in Australia see Donald Trump in exactly the same way as the readers of the “New York Times” or humanities students in elite universities in the USA. At the same time, the people who voted for Brexit and the people who voted for Donald Trump have a great deal in common because they have experienced a very similar kind of loss with respect to their more traditionally based social and economic place in the world.
Interestingly, though, early nationalist theorists such as Herder held that the nation was commensurate with a more tolerant and (dare I use this term) enlightened and cosmopolitan world. Membership of a nation meant that one could connect with others through initially bonding around shared stories, experiences, sentiments, tastes, loyalties and commitments, and only after that would one be in a position to form further bonds of solidarity with others. The older notion of nationhood takes for granted that members of a nation are very different in the roles they must play and the sacrifices they must make. So, a nation bonds the different into a greater unity.
The contemporary anti-nationalist, on the other hand, sees identities as based on the will, and the body itself based on the will (sexual/gender fluidity, for example); and what really matters – indeed the only thing that matters – is that the principle of emancipation is adhered to.
Conversely, one has a stake in the future because one can demonstrate that one is of the oppressed and hence a contributor to the great emancipation. Of course, this is the triumph of the abstract – there is absolutely no need to understand people as complex characters in order to think like this. And indeed, most people I know who think like this are completely lacking in psychological acumen, historical and genuine cultural sensitivity.
ZJ: When I taught in Canada, part of the program was WWI poetry. I vividly remember teaching a poem by Wilfred Owen, which I would like to quote here: It is a poem you know: “Dulce et Decorum Est:”
Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,
Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,
Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs,
And towards our distant rest began to trudge.
Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots,
But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame; all blind;
Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots
Of gas-shells dropping softly behind.
Gas! GAS! Quick, boys! - An ecstasy of fumbling
Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time,
But someone still was yelling out and stumbling
And flound’ring like a man in fire or lime. -
Dim through the misty panes and thick green light,
As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.
In all my dreams before my helpless sight,
He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.
If in some smothering dreams, you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil’s sick of sin;
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues, -
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie: Dulce et decorum estPro patria mori.
The poem is very timely in a perverse way. We live in times when nationalism is under attack, thought of as evil; patriotism is ridiculed; globalism is the new faith – but it is a faith of someone who is attached neither to his country, his religion, his civilization, or his culture. In fact, it is a faith of someone who has neither fatherland nor culture. All kinds of semi-ideologies, like climate-change, vegetarianism, etc., have become an ersatz for cultural identification.
The last line of the poem seems to ridicule or question the idea that goes back to the Romans and the Greeks.
When I taught this poem in 2001, the Canadian students were somewhat divided about the idea, about it being a lie to die for one’s country. However, one student – whose parents I knew rather well, a very old Nova Scotian family – blurted out: “I have no intention of going to war and dying for American IBM or the Canadian Postal Service; we had Royal Post and now we have a big nothing that does not even deliver mail on time.”
I thought it was an interesting answer. It expresses a deep human sentiment – the need to be attached to national symbols, country. Even death has cultural ramifications. People want to have a reason to die; they do not want to die as cogs in some global machinery – needlessly, senselessly. What is your take on it? Are Australians similarly minded, or are they going to go to war to die for Starbucks, and dying for Starbucks or Amazon is the new truth, whereas pro patria mori to gain glory is “The old Lie?”
WC: I think my last answer anticipated this question somewhat. So, let me leap ahead again and address what I think is the really important aspect of your question. As you have gathered, I am not at all comfortable trying to speak about Australian-ness as if I were somehow a representative of it, or as if it were some sort of essence. Its meaning is very loose and mutable. And, as far as I can tell, in so far as it exists today, I think it is largely limited to the “somewheres,” though the “anywheres” might support their one national team in sports such as cricket, rugby, soccer, the Olympics, etc.
The following example is pertinent. Recently, a Christian rugby player (one of the few star players in our national team) lost his contract because he tweeted that liars, adulterers, drunkards, homosexuals and others were going to Hell and he called for them to repent. He had violated some ethical code that the sponsors (Qantas) had dreamed up. Of course, it was not the adulterers, liars, drunkards who were offended, but the gay lobby group. The country was deeply divided – and the irony was delicious.
Most of the “anywheres” wanted him sacked because what he said was “hateful,” yet few of them actually believe in “Hell;” most of those who supported him were “somewheres,” and many were not Christians, but simply did not like a corporation having so much power, and they also don’t like the idea of their jobs being reliant upon not being allowed to express their opinions.
The “anywheres” present themselves as defenders of the minorities and marginalized, which means they put gays, “people of colour” (so all non-whites can be treated as oppressed), and Muslims all in the same box. I very much doubt that if the rugby player had been Muslim, he would have lost his contract. It would have gone into the “too hard to deal with” basket.
The globalist or elite understanding of identity requires simplifications which fit the larger narration of their idea of a better world, and that is somehow (inanely) supposed to bring together (non-European, and non-Christian) traditions and culture with modern sexual freedom and gender (now non-binary) roles. But the more archaic understanding of identity was based upon more primordial aspects of collective suffering and sacrifice, founding and forming.
The ancients knew that life is sacrificial – and the ritual of sacrifice is a figurative display of one of the most primordial truths of human existence – collective life requires of people that they yield something of themselves to the collective, and each member plays a role – those roles are not equal, of course. How could they be?
Equality is abstract; our original divisions of labour are driven by real problems not abstract ones – someone must grow the food, someone must stop others from making raids, someone must pray that the gods support us, someone must judge and so forth. Each kind of sacrifice has a specific value, and pay-off – warriors have weapons and extract from the food supply, but they risk their lives; food producers have security but are vulnerable. Life is not a geometrical puzzle composed of equal parts.
ZJ: So are you saying that the pre-modern understanding of the sacrificial dimension of social life has been replaced by a more abstract understanding that makes life more manageable?
WC: Exactly. The abstract nature of modern appeals goes hand in hand with an approach to social life generating leaders/elites who have to justify their authority: they are moral paragons who know all that needs to be known, and they will “save” us all by educating us to think just like them. But who wants to sacrifice themselves for a world that is part Brave New World (sex/ drugs/ infantile distractions and self-absorption) and 1984 (complete conformity down to what one thinks or thought twenty years ago)?
The world that is supposed to be totally emancipated will become the most slavish society ever; and the irony is that it will do so largely because the modern elite have no understanding of the sacrificial nature of existence – for our contemporary ruling class, sacrifice always means oppression.
The archaic and pre-Westphalian “people” or nation was a collective formed across generations, in which roles enabled different groups to operate upon, and open up, different “fronts” of the real: it identified with a certain history and destiny, and hence is as apposite as it is for tribes, cities or empires.. The nation in this sense is a source of collective sustenance; and as such it commands sacrificial service. To be sure, because something is held together by its sacrifices does not mean that those sacrifices may not be in vain, nor that there was never cruelty, or “oppression.”
Let me also tie this together with the point you make about what the young may be willing to die for – not, say, Starbucks, or a bank. We know that humans are quite ready to throw their lives away for something they believe in. And as I said, people generally seem to need to serve something higher than themselves. For a lot of people today it is climate – and there is a faith in the earth as our mother; and if we but treat her well she will treat us well.
This is a good illustration of the polytheistic nature of the modern – but this is all concealed because we use what Vico identified as demotic, rather than poetic language. And hence we make issues around climate a matter of “science,” reinforced by ideology and mechanisms of political authority.
So, the way I see it is that it is the spiritual hunger that is driving the various progressive/utopian narratives – and these are, in turn, shored up institutionally and economically, so that those who learn the narratives and share the spirit will become the priests, and their narratives become the prayers that the rest of us are meant to live and swear by.
But those whose economic agency and social existence is not at all nourished by this god, and this priest-class, look back to what has provided nourishment from the past – and that is the more traditional forms of communal solidarity: family, workplace, church, and the nation. But, sadly, for them and perhaps for us all, the fracture is so great that I do not think repair is possible.
ZJ: Let me ask you a related question about death. Albert Camus wrote the essay “The Myth of Sisyphus,” which opens with a strange idea: There is one, and only one, philosophical problem – that is, suicide. I was always puzzled by it. Here is someone in the middle of the 20th-century, who claims that the entire effort of Western civilization was pointless unless it addressed this one question. Accordingly, only a few thinkers would qualify to do philosophy in this sense: Pascal, Kierkegaard, Dostoevsky, particularly his Dream of a Ridiculous Man. None of them, let’s note, figure in history of philosophy books.
Camus goes on to say that the question is whether it makes sense to go on living. In other words—Does life make sense? And he answers by saying that there are only two ways, of which the Don Quixote way is the only solution. What he means by it is that we have to invent sense. I like the Don Quixote metaphor. What happens in the novel is that Don Quixote wants to revive chivalry, an ancient, medieval way of life. He fights with windmills, glorifies a woman from low background by elevating her, in his imagination, to the status of a lady. Everybody is laughing, thinking that he has lost his mind, and to indulge him in his insanity; everybody plays the game. However, as they play the game, they get caught up in living in his world – the world of imagination.
One way of applying it to Camus is that only by elevating our status as human beings through imagination which creates values. Can we elevate ourselves without thinking about dying a senseless death? Do you think that what I said can be translated into contemporary social or political categories of national culture, patriotism, of defending oneself against the onslaught of globalist ideology, which leaves people helpless and contemplating death because they see nothing to live for? The suicide rate in the US went up 30 per cent or so in the last 10 years, and it is highest among young people.
WC: I love Camus – and it was very wise of him to make suicide a central issue, though the importance of collective suicide is something, I think, he addresses in The Rebel, a book I admire even more than the Myth of Sisyphus because it provides one of the most important diagnoses of the rise of totalitarian philosophies and politics.
At the heart of the book is the idea of metaphysical or cosmic rebellion, which I think is his greatest idea. Metaphysical rebellion is the defiance of life itself that involves resorting to absolutist abstract ends such as freedom, equality, justice, identity (the Nazis) which can never be actualized but which pull us ever further into violence and murder.
Camus compares this with rebels who make a pact to improve their specific lot and know that sacrifice and murder will be part of the deal – but in the knowledge of what they are doing, they bond together around the limit of their pursuit for overthrowing a specific group of people who are doing very specific acts of injustice. This is very different from someone saying that an entire system is unjust and that one must destroy the system/totality and replace it with a new one based upon perfect principles.
Metaphysical rebels – which is what the modern intelligentsia largely are – do not own up to their murderous incitements or deeds, and they find their absolution in the perfection of their ends which exist in such stark opposition to the world that they make.
I think it is also pertinent to your observation about Don Quixote. Cervantes is another great critic of modernity, who sees essential features of it and hence consequences for the modernization of humanity at the moment of modernity’s birth. His imagined world has a depth of meaning that the mundane world has lost – and it has lost it because it has sapped the inner resources of the imagination by constraining them in such a way that they are either directed to technique or technology, or entertainment and art.
Nietzsche saw the problem of nihilism, but he thought he could manufacture a myth that would make life for the strong worth living (“the eternal recurrence”). I think this is another symptom of the insane hybris of modern thinkers who think their scanty and threadbare ideas – their little bit of learning suffices to make a world (again, Descartes springs to mind, with the World being the title of his posthumously published magnum opus, though he limited himself to the natural world).
It would be a very good thing if people stopped revering intellectuals and operated from the basis that none of us know very much. One reason I like monotheism is that it accepts our need to divinize and serve, but also restricts it to one power. I am astounded, for example, by how little Marx and Nietzsche knew, compared, say, to Herder, who seems to have never stopped finding out stuff – not that I know that much, but my point is that none know that much compared to the infinite quantity of what there is to know.
ZJ: Since you mentioned Descartes, the question arises – his mechanical model of the world and man, his nature, whose operations can be explained in scientific terms, does not make room for values?
WC: Modern myths are really “make believe” and they are predicated upon conscious decisions. I think pre-modern myths work exactly in the opposite way, which is why pre-modern myths are so fecund and modern ones so narrow and limited in their social appeal. This also relates to the other part of your question about national culture and globalism. National culture was a name after it was a fact, or rather an amalgam of practices, commitments, processes, appeals, symbols etc. long before there was such a thing as “nationalism.”
Thus, it was that when nationalism became a coherent ideology, it required retrieving a past and its symbols as powers for intensifying the solidarity that was already there in a particular collective formation – people felt part of something before they gave a name to what they were doing and had been done. The nation was actual before there was nationalism; nationalism, though, was invoked to overthrow powers that could be identified as serving other national or imperial interests. (Of course, the modern nation and modern nationalism also introduced novel political elements which were part of the great transfer of power between political elites).
Typically today academics see something like the nation as a confirmation of their belief that societies are constructed – the presumption being that they can create/ construct the kind of society they want. I think they confuse what it is they are doing and want to achieve with what other people before them have done. They focus upon intention, and completely miss the vast array of world-making that simply happens and is neither conscious nor intended.
ZJ: Once, in our private conversation, you mentioned Allan Bloom’s book, The Closing of the American Mind. The Great Books Program, of which Bloom was a great defender goes back a hundred years. if I am not mistaken, Harvard University Press or the University of Chicago Press were the first to introduce a set of readings – books – that every American should read. The Great Books Program became a standard of education in the US.
Bloom’s Closing started a furious debate over Western civilization in the States. Even Jesse Jackson, not known for his learning of Western Classics, said, “hi, hi, ho, ho Western Culture’s got to go.” It’s gone. The consequence – serious education disappeared from American college campuses, which became a mecca of cultural barbarism.
Here are a few questions. What kept Americans together, what formed national glue, was the reading of Great Books—the European Classics, which kept them close to Europe in the 20th-century.
What kept, or still keeps Australians (culturally) together? How did you ensure the sense of European identity in Australia?
WC: Let me first say something about Great Books in general, their importance and Bloom, then the US and lastly Australia.
I have taught the great books ever since I started academic life. One course that I taught for many years at the University of Adelaide had the title, “Great Ideas of Western Civilization;” another “Great Ideas in Literary Texts.” (Though the problems that have come to light with Australian universities wanting to stop, or undermine, the attempt to introduce courses in Western Civilization by the Paul Ramsey Foundation, indicates that, in many campuses, I might not be able to run courses with such titles today).
The reason I taught these books is that for a book to be considered great, it has to have had a great impact. The greatest, say, the Bible, the Koran or the Iliad have been people/nation-forming. The next greatest have been human-type forming. And finally, less impactful, but still important, the genre or subject forming or developing. Socrates and Plato formed a new human-type (the philosopher). Of course, the Pre-Socratics are their precursors in this project. Aristotle does not do that, but he certainly improves and contributes to philosophical ideas in a “great” way: One simply cannot talk about the Middle Ages without talking about the Medieval university and scholasticism – and as soon as one talks of them, one must speak of Aristotle. For Aquinas, Aristotle was simply referred to as “the philosopher.”
A great book is not just a matter of quality. This is where I think Harold Bloom got it wildly wrong and why his book on the Western Canon ends up as a list that exponentially increases because there are more and more people writing and a lot of it is very good. In some cases, the literary quality of a great book may have nothing to do with its greatness. Goethe’s Faust is a great book in its depiction of the modern predicament. But as a work of literature it is terrible – poorly cobbled together (over a life-time), haphazard, and containing episodes of very uneven quality, ding-dong poetry, etc. But none of that matters. To be greatly crafted and even imagined does not mean a work is canonical.
While Harold Bloom makes too much of literary qualities when it comes to great or canonical works, Alan Bloom makes another kind of mistake – though he is so much better than most of his critics who were just ideologues. Alan Bloom (in this he is just like his teacher, Leo Strauss) treats the great books on the basis of their perennial character. Like Strauss, he detests relativism and historicism. I don’t want to go into the grain of the arguments concerning historicism. And as for relativism, I think it is just a very unhelpful word, and I am suspicious of the way that disputes, where the details matter, become cordoned off into an “-ism.”
But what Alan Bloom and Strauss (to those who read German, this pairing of teacher and student is pretty amusing) tend to do is make of their student homo perennial as well as the book. So, once they start engaging with Plato or Machiavelli or Rousseau, you also find yourself caught up in the American constitution as well as arguments that ultimately require you to give yourself over to how Alan Bloom or Strauss see the world, which is ostensibly very reasonable, and which ostensibly owes so much to Plato or whoever. All sense of “growth,” of collective engagement and lessons that transpire over time and across the ages, that arise from very different kinds of circumstances and ways of world-making is simply brushed aside as “historicism.”
I don’t like this at all, because I think their students are usually very weak in their ability to enter more closely into other worlds and deal with problems that are not their problems, but which if they took seriously might considerably broaden their horizons, and their imagination and their capacity for empathy as well as their appreciation of human and collective nature and development. I have always found Straussians somewhat like Marxists. Girard tends to attract similar types: they all think what they know is essentially what they need to know.
So, Great Books – yes, great. But their point – for readers of today – is not merely to draw us into one person’s take on the real – no matter how brilliant. Rather such works serve as entrances into worlds far beyond what we think we know. They are revelations, founding acts of creation, as well as entrances into the creation of a new “world.” And one must realize how much contestation is going on within them, and how they are an opening to a great array of circumstances and problems and points of view, and they do not spare us our own tribulations and need for resourcefulness. There is no human master whose feet we can sit at while supping forever off their words. Life is one great trial after another.
ZJ: How does it relate to Australia, your sense of identity, and can one claim, as Americans did, that identity can come from reading certain books?
WC: As for the US and Australia and great books, as far as I know, the curriculum in the Arts and Humanities in Australia (up until the 1980s and 1990s) generally included works that would also be considered great. At the same time, I think already in the 1920s and 1930s, a scientistic spirit had entered into the university as behaviourism, and positivism took hold of the social sciences. Philosophy was beginning to focus upon problem-solving and moving away from a knowledge of the history of its subject.
But it was really the 1960s politicization of the curricula that led to the disciplines and their founding/core texts (great books) undergoing such a transformation that the minds of the students who entered them were left in tatters, only glued together by ideology. The same process, more or less, happened in Australia.
I think the identity that was cultivated had far less to do with universities, which were for the relatively few, and far more to do with schools and churches, and also clubs and associations. Here the Bible mattered a lot. As for Plato or Rousseau, etc., not that much. I suspect, but am happy to be corrected on this, that Montesquieu and Locke mattered far more for the historic moment in which Jefferson, Adams, Madison and Hamilton et. al played their part (and because they are founders, their ideas and reading really matters) than in times when the creation, diffusion and variety of ideas and practices are implicated in events that don’t have overly much to do with humanities subjects in universities.
Indeed, my criticism of Alan Bloom and Strauss is apposite here, in trying to figure out the values and collective decisions that were important in the U.S. and Australia. In the second half of the nineteenth century, or much of the twentieth century, I would not be primarily looking to universities, certainly not primarily to the study of Plato, Hegel, etc. when thinking about the US or Australia but to larger events and more variegated narratives, and the insights of journalists, writers, clerics and other well read cultural figures: the cultural unity was not primarily philosophical because it was not an ideational/ ideological fabrication. The importance of the Bible I just mentioned confirms the point I wish to make: the Bible is not a book of “ideas” – indeed it confounds rational explications of human behaviour or ethics. It is a book of stories, events, mysteries, relationships, trials and failures, broken and kept promises, sin and redemption. It is a story, a love story between the Lord and His “servants,” told across many ages, involving many people and events – not a philosophy. It spawns countless interpretations because it is full of contingencies – which is the way life is; philosophies, on the other hand, smooth out contingencies to make them align to what we or someone can rationally think about them.
However, in the 1960s, I think this changes because there we can definitely recognize (a) that the rise of mass education will impact upon those who go into professions and (b) that the ideas which were part of the social revolution of the 1960s have gained increasing social traction – in part again because teachers, journalists, etc. go to universities where these are the narratives and ideas they get trained in. This also happens to occur at times when the other sites of social induction (the church and clubs and associations) decline in terms of influence.
So, the attack upon authority coming out of the universities, which then enters schools, newspapers, tv shows, movies, etc. changes the entire culture and aesthetics of appeal and value, and indeed the moral economy, so that now being hostile to tradition is affirmed by one’s grades, employment opportunities, moral status.
To put it bluntly, the destruction of national identity, which is common to the entire Western world, is a direct corollary of the creation of an elite group of educators that is essential for the social reproduction of professionals who are needed to run the private and public sector. It was this class that created the Russian revolution, and it is this class that is creating the global revolution. And in both cases what was being thrown away was the features of identity and solidarity that are not the results of elite manufacturing.
Unfortunately, our elites can only think in terms of elite manufacturing. This is our tragedy – that our social and economic dependencies are dependencies of destruction – conscious attempts to rip up ways of life in which many people still have a stake, and replace them with new ones in which the stakeholders are mainly paid for words, ideas, and enforcement of those words and ideas, and practices that fit them.
ZJ: Several years ago, the Polish philosopher, Ryszard Legutko, published The Demon in Demon in Democracy, the book you read and liked. It sold 16,000 copies within a year. It may not be Bloom’s million, but it is totally unprecedented. It was translated into German, French and Spanish. It provoked good reactions for the most part. How do you explain its success? What is it about Legutko’s book that explains why so many people read it?
WC: When Closing of the American Mind came out a lot of people could see there was a kind of madness coming out of higher education, especially, but by no means only, in the USA. That book gave an explanation for it, and it also offered hope that there was a better cultural way. Sadly, I think that way has no institutional support.
Having said that and perhaps to offset my pessimism, it is also the case that institutions are bearers of spirit, and spirits die; and then it is up to us to give birth to new institutions that better enable us to carry on across the times, as we gather and transfer our powers to future generations. So, what I am seeing in its destructive throes is also the occasion of new unpredicted responses and creative acts that may well help us outrun these diabolical stupidities of the modern mind and heart.
Legutko’s book, which I learnt about through Nick Capaldi, is about the diabolical nature of over-politicization and the tendency of that within democracies. One should bear in mind about democracies that they have never endured for very long; and that while they solve problems, they also create a problem for any class or group that wants its way. This is the problem being faced now – democracy is taught as a good thing and is defended by journalists, etc. until the moment when the electorate do not want what their elites – especially those who live off narrative formation, instruction, etc. – want.
The EU is the model of the Western post-democratic future, though it may just fall apart. Again, I think there are many people who agree with the diagnosis provided by Legutko of how liberal-democracy is proactive in forming a totalitarian mind-set – confirmed, of course, in practice, by the hostile student attempt to stop him speaking at Middlebury. Again, it only showed how desperate our ideas-brokers are to preserve really bad and fragile ideas.
ZJ: What I find surprising, and I do not say it to diminish the originality of Legutko’s book, is that we do not find anything shocking in the book, and yet it became a philosophical bestseller. When I read it, I thought, it is very good, persuasive, very well-written – but he says things that should be obvious to everyone. Yet he infuriated the professors and students in America, at Middlebury College, for example, to the point that his lecture had to be cancelled because the college could not guarantee his security.
Under Communism, we would have loved to hear a speaker who said things which were controversial. In today’s America, we shut down people who even dare to think differently. Is the situation in Australia the same?
WC: Identical! Again, it has to do with class rather than culture; or, more precisely, class can also affect culture. The Left thinks it is making such great strides in human emancipation when it is just ensuring that we are replaceable, that we are resources to be managed and directed by those who have the ambition to rule, manage, and control the future on the basis of their certitudes about the nature and purpose of life. This is why global corporations can, and indeed do, ally themselves with socialist or “woke” “radicals” and causes – BLM, Antifa, etc. Forgive me being bleak again – but this is why the faith I have in humanity comes from spontaneous, unpredictable acts of loving kindness, friendship, etc.
Those people who booed and shut down Legutko showed that they are the real enemies of creative freedom and are the enemies of a more convivial future. But they cannot see themselves. If, as they get older, and they wake up a little from their “wokeness” and look back upon what they have done, and if they have any spark of soul left, they will be ashamed of what they have done. The millennials are just re-enacting what my generation did some fifty years back; and so a number of us also look back in shame at our younger selves.
ZJ: Let me go back a bit. You do not have, and have never had a Great Books program; nor did the Canadians. Only Americans did. All three of you were former British colonies, yet only in America’s case was the national identity guaranteed by “pumping” European heritage into the students’ minds; not in Australia, not in Canada. How do you explain it? Is the presence of British heritage stronger there than in America? Or is it connected with the idea that the U.S. had become much earlier a country of immigrants from all over the world, rather than from Europe or Britain?
WC: As I mentioned, I did teach Great Books, and for a long time. Although people did not teach subjects called Great Books, parts at least of the curriculum of the BA was steeped in Great Books. English literature students studied Paradise Lost, some Shakespeare, Blake, etc. Philosophy students some Plato, or Hume and Locke, and so on. So, I think the kind of “pumping” process was occurring. But as I said earlier, I think, the Bible excepted (and even that spreads through rite and ritual), the cultural formation should not be understood solely through books.
The British heritage was strong in Australia – but not so much now, though the other cultural forces are more diffuse. But the American influence (music, television, film, books, ideas) is huge. I don’t want to segue too far into American identity, but I will just say that I think Americans tend to see the world as themselves writ large, and Australians also tend to do this. There is, in my opinion, too much blah-blah about identity. Where real identity exists, one often doesn’t talk about it; one just carries on a certain way. Where people insist upon identity for political gain, it is usually because they want to dictate how people with certain features or interests must behave. It is very self-serving, and has little to do with any reality. It is true that if one’s world is under threat, then identity may be important. Context matters – there is a big difference between identity being appealed to from the ground up to bind people together because they are genuinely under threat and are treated as identical by enemies wishing to harm them than an elite defining what constitutes an identity so that they can make clients and dependents of a group with certain common features.
ZJ: Americans are obsessed with their founding. Each year we have another book about the American Revolution, and how great it was that we separated. One of the myths is “persecution” and “freedom” – which from European and particularly British perspective, sounds strange. It was the dissenters – the troublemakers – who fled, colonized the continent and, as a distinguished English historian, Jonathan Clark, sees it, 1776 was the last war of religion, and the unfolding of European history in the New World.
This is not so in Australia (or Canada where the Royalists fled [and known as the United Empire Loyalists). You do not have the same national myths, and your relationship with your “mothership” does not seem so stormy. Where might such a difference come from? What is Australia’s relationship to Britain now?
WC: We were settled by convicts, though not South Australia. The Australian myth is one of rebellion, mistrust of, and refusal to kowtow to, authority. Our founding myth is the Anzac defeat at Gallipoli. We are a nation of losers, so to speak. But there is also a sense of betrayal by the mother-country, of us being sacrificed in a larger game which we did not control. The other part of the myth was the Outback. But Australians largely live on the coast and most are urban dwellers.
Now the tertiary educated, who dominate our ideational narratives, see Britain as a colonial power wreaking destruction on the world, so we should distance ourselves from it. (They are so historically ignorant that they do not see the relationship between resource competition, the scale of territorial power, military conquests and alliances, the need to find resources to maintain military power, and hence the logic of empire as expansionary but also cross-cultural).
Thus, we went from having a bit of a chip on our shoulder about the British, to seeing ourselves as their moral betters – though we still have bits of shame and guilt to pour on ourselves with respect to the treatment of indigenous people. Given that the British, like the Americans, are also caught up in their own guilt and past shame, this too is a more global phenomenon within the West – Chinese and Muslims certainly are not using their own sense of shame as a means of moral, economic and institutional opportunity or gain. What matters for them is pride in their past – and their shame comes from the power they have lost, not the power they inherited!
Our old myths really have little leverage in Australia today. And all myths to the contrary, we are, in fact, a terribly bureaucratic country. The urban/regional split also means that those Australians who are more like the mythical Australian (laconic, irreverent, more given to practical action than talking) tend to be seen as stupid by urban Australians.
One only has to tune into our national public broadcaster to see that our tertiary educated urban population are a nation of groupthink. Try questioning climate change in any public forum, or within a university – good luck! So, we are a torn country. Presently, many argue we should not celebrate Australia Day because it is celebrating conquest, if not outright genocide. Our professional classes are as given to moral absolutes and hyperbole as the Americans and other Western European professional classes – on very similar issues. Once again, it is symptomatic of the globalisation of industry and ideas, and the divide between the old national members and the new globalized elites.
ZJ: Let me recall a historical fact that few people remember or know of. In 1975, the Australian Parliament got dissolved by the British Queen because it suffered from gridlock. In other words, it became dysfunctional. We cannot do this in the US. In fact, we cannot do it anywhere with full democracy. In your case, it worked and it proved that a mechanism like that is needed because a parliament or congress cannot dismiss itself. Monarchy – however limited – seems to work. Look at Brexit… Parliament is helpless.
WC: Well, in that instance, it was the Queen’s representative that broke the gridlock. Many still call this a constitutional crisis, even though the election quickly followed the sacking of the elected Prime Minister. In a sense you have answered your own question. Britain is a monarchy; but parliament is helpless in times of a crisis. A political system is ultimately only as good as the political culture which sustains it. Thus, our crises are cultural crises played out within systems – and tearing them apart. A system does have a fair amount of cultural capital stored within its practices, but that cannot last forever where the wills of its opponents are powerful and unified.
It is probably obvious from the answers I have already given that I think Western democracies are in serious trouble. There are structural and cultural aspects of that crisis. Structurally, the crisis has come about through the elevation of a class who see themselves – and indeed have become – global and national leaders. They are like Nietzsche’s higher men – except they actually achieve their elevation by deploying narratives of equality and identity, narratives Nietzsche associated with the herd.
This is actually cleverer than Nietzsche (and it is not even the kind of clever that was consciously decided; rather, it is clever in terms of the interests it unifies through self-serving decisions), because Nietzsche failed to realize that the new elite would need to be seen to be serving the mass, even if they were creating a scaffold for their own in-breeding (the elites don’t generally marry down) and taste.
ZJ: 1492 – for centuries now, the date was associated with Columbus’ discovery of America. Today, in the US, it means genocide! Genocide of the Indians. Several cities in the U.S., including Washington DC this year, renamed Columbus Day as Indigenous Peoples Day. You, as Australian, probably have views on the question. But before I let you answer, let me make a few remarks.
First, even if one would grant some validity to the objection, the problem is of judging the past by the standards of today. Second, it is a childish way of looking at history, thinking that it would have been good, but bad people made it evil, which is a demonstration of lack of knowledge as to what happened everywhere; that people would conquer other lands; and, as the philosopher you know well, Hegel, said, history is a slaughter bench on which millions have been sacrificed. This is not to say that we should continue slaughtering each other, but since it was a mechanism of history, people who claim it was genocide, do not seem to know how anything operates.
WC: This is exactly the problem. A knowledge of history that also takes into account social formation and transformation, and where conflict and resource competition fits into the picture, should cure people of utopian idealism – though there are plenty of historians who still read history as if they were God presiding over the Day of Judgment, and hence relate history as if history were a morality tale, and that its actors could and should have done differently.
History is neither a metaphysical nor a moral problem, but the accumulated experiences of decisions, actions and circumstances that have created the world we have to dwell in. What we also know is that our political moralists of today have what they have because of their history – which is our history.
To want to create a better world may be admirable, but one cannot forget that one is part of a world in which sacrifice, strife, competition for resources and group survival were primarily existential choices, not purely moral ones. This is as much the story of the ancients, of tribes, cities and empires, as it is of the moderns with our civil and world wars.
But genuine social betterment requires genuine alignments of solidarity, common loves and commitments, not the enforcement of principles and ideas. Having an idea that humans are basically good, or that we actually have rights that were not derived out of political and social experience, or that we can just apply a set of axioms about human behaviour, is the opposite of helpful. We have to work on the little bit of reality before us; and if we do not see forces that threaten to extinguish a group as we are focussed only upon our ideals, then we will go under.
ZJ: A few years ago, in Vienna, where there was a monument dedicated to the Polish king, John III Sobieski, who stopped the Turkish forces from invading Europe, in 1688. It was desecrated and a sign attached: “Genocide.” The king who was celebrated as defending Europe from Muslim invasion stands condemned for the very same reason – as the defender of the West, just like Columbus, stands condemned for bringing the West to the New World. Do you see a similarity, and what exactly, in your opinion, stands behind the two so different occurrences?
WC: When Columbus first arrived in the Bahamas, he thought he had found a new world free from violence. He quickly learnt otherwise. The idea that the Europeans created violence in the new world is a fantasy. Think, for example, of how the enemies of the Aztecs assisted Cortes. That Europeans brought a new kind of havoc that had really terrible consequences for the indigenous peoples of the “New World” is not something I dispute. I simply note that imperialism is a very ancient modality of social and political organization, and that scale and technology matter.
In part, though, I do see the hostility to certain founding myths as a fair enough response – up to a point. That is, the 1960s generation and their more left-leaning professors from a previous generation were not wrong to expose peaceful foundational myths as untrue. But this does not mean that the “New World” did not have its own survival strategies in which violence was a common enough occurrence.
I would also qualify this by saying where resources are spread widely and groups are small enough and can stay out of each other’s way, then it may be avoidable – at least up to a point. But anthropological finds of grave sites do indicate how common violent death generally was amongst tribes. The city and the empire are also, in part, a means for walling out violence. But, of course, as groups grow and empires subsist alongside each other, violence again enters into the picture on an even larger scale.
The problem is not that we should not be honest about conquest and violence – and once the United States was formed and the land expansion drove out the native Americans in the 19th-century, it was really shocking, though not altogether unlike how other tribes within antiquity had acquired land. A case can be made that, had the U.S. remained under the British crown, its history may have been far less bloody.
Of course, counterfactual history is only partially helpful. But that so many Western educated people believe that the West was somehow unique in its deployment of violence for securing territory and resources is silly – and, I repeat, making moral judgments about the past is meaningless, especially when the people making them are the beneficiaries of the bloody deeds that are their own history: What was unique was the technology and accompanying systems of commerce and administration which created greater opportunities for power enhancement and expansion.
But the idea, to take your second example, that Islam was not an imperializing enterprise from the very beginning, or that Muslims were pacifists and innocents, and Christian nations uniquely imperial, is historically mad (those poor Turks attacking Vienna!). But once you simply treat Muslims as a minority, you will project all sorts of virtues onto a group because they suit the narrative that you live off of and define your place in the world by.
Likewise, those Muslims who have aspirations to really fulfill the injunction to bring the world to peace through all submitting to Allah, will gladly support this narrative, and will gladly represent themselves as victims of genocide in Vienna, as if they were in solidarity with native Americans, whose people were subject to genocidal levels of violence. But, unlike the Westerners who fall for this, they at least know what they are doing.
ZJ: Given the logic of the genocide argument, we should conclude that neither conquest nor colonization should have ever happened – which means, no Persian Empire, no Greek colonization, no Roman Empire, no Mongol, Ottoman, British, Portuguese, French, Spanish Empires. What I have enumerated is only a tiny portion of what history looked like, which does not give much support for politically correct claims and visions of history, let alone human nature. But given all the PC activists’ ignorance of history, the question emerges: Does PC behaviour stem from ignorance or something else?
WC: I think I have already made clear what I think about PC anthropology. It is, as others have rightly labelled it, “Disneyfication.” As you know I am a great admirer of J.G. Herder, who unfortunately is usually just viewed as a “romantic,” when he is a complicated and a very profound thinker.
Herder made the point (one which you can also find in Augustine) that a group’s survival depends upon it having something lovable about its world. So, just as I cannot accept the romantic view of indigenous life, a life that like all social forms, has strict and often brutal means of enforcing group survival,
I do not deny that it was a dwelling place on earth with its own rewards and sacrifices. Hence, too, I also do not want to underestimate the cost of civilization. Our conversation is largely about the sacrificial component of civilization and how precarious our circumstances are right now.
And, as much as I disagree with the liberal-progressive view of life, I also acknowledge that it exists because of all manner of problems (including the last World War) which provided the backdrop for people wanting to “Give Peace a Chance” and “Imagine” a better world. So, I think, one may well have important discussions about different life-ways; and what is won and lost as one world is destroyed.
Now the indigenous worlds were destroyed because they had found ways to survive that ultimately (and I do not mean this in any disparaging way) curtailed the need for the kind of human inventiveness that developed with empires, and at their most sophisticated levels with the crucible of the West and its wars and revolutions.
I have said it many times now: Inventiveness is forged in the furnaces of war and horror, which is as true for the scientific revolution as for the formation of the modern nation state. The experience of the West was such that one crisis after another led to a certain kind of “advancement” – specifically, technological, administrative, socioeconomic and even political.
Fortunate were those (at least relatively) who could stave this off, until, that is, they found themselves in competition with outsiders over their resources. History cannot be unmade, and so any strategy of solving our problems which requires cultural romanticism is doomed to fail. Worst of all, it condemns the living to a lost past, so that they themselves become like ghosts and more like pieces in the imaginations of those who wish to dictate their own narratives and future for the living.
Culture, like everything else, is not an essence but an adaptive process. So, pretending that the powers of the modern world can be simply blocked out by a romantic retreat is to condemn people to powerlessness in their world. Although policy and public narrative commonly romanticize the past, imagine a government that said: “Sorry we did wrong, so what we will do is give you back a vast amount of territory, then build a fence, and leave you alone. No phones, cars, roads, hospitals, medical supplies, TVs or anything else that modernity has made will be available to you. You are free to return to a past world. We will not mine there or allow any of our people to enter. But once you go back you are not allowed to return.”
Can you imagine the outcry of indignation? Being in a world comes with a price. Our freedoms come at the cost of widespread depression, anomie, ennui, isolation, medication, infantilism, and so many other afflictions, including romanticism and utopianism and their institutional ensconcement.
The reason I am an Augustinian when it comes to human nature is that we all live off the violence and crimes – the sins – of our forefathers. Real dialogue is impossible, if we start with a mythic idealisation.
ZJ: Are the contemporary problems of the USA, Canada, Australia those that the Britishness of those countries created, by which I mean Protestant religion, common language. Again, to be clear, many of the problems that feminists see, such as the use of pronouns (he and she) are laughable from the point of view of someone who knows languages and knows that gender (masculine, feminine and neuter) is grammatical; it is not social categories. But in the English-speaking world, precisely because English no longer uses gender in its grammar, these problems have been created, which could not have sprung-up elsewhere. Yet, these English-language problems, because of American dominance, have become global problems.
If I think of the suicidal tendencies within the West today, it seems to me that they do come out of the appeals to freedom and social equality that are the outgrowth of the European experience and responses to their circumstances, including, perhaps most significantly, wars and revolutions.
That the European experience is predicated upon Christian culture, as well other sociological and geopolitical contingencies, seems to me very obvious. Calvinism, in particular, though not of British influence plays a decisive role in helping shape what will become modern republicanism. It will also play an important role in generating a moral and aesthetic orientation to personal and social life that will then become secularised.
I really like John Cuddihy’s book on the Calvinist influences upon the USA, No Offense: Civil Religion and Protestant Taste. A certain sensibility, which combines a sense of (divine/ moral) election, the overcoming of all evil, the doctrinal (moral) transparency of all souls within the community (see, Joseph Bottum, An Anxious Age: The Post-Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of America) has prevailed within our elites (and this is as much the case in Canada, the UK, Australia, as the USA) – which is manifestly Calvinist in original form. but with the kind of content that comes out of the atheistic socialistic, progressive mind of the nineteenth-century.
This sensibility simultaneously combines guilt and a desire for the “kingdom.” So, without Christianity, it is pretty impossible to imagine this modern elite and our narratives of emancipation. But they are also anti-Christian and heretical, diabolical even – total faith in human knowledge, the human will, and the self/identity. The Islamists, the Chinese, the Russians, etc. think the West is killing itself. That is what I fear as well – and I hope I am completely wrong.
ZJ. Thank you so much for this conversation, Professor Cristaudo!
The image shows, “1807, Friedland,” by Jean-Louis-Ernest Meissonie, painted 1861-1875.
Zbigniew Janowski (ZJ): When I interviewed you twenty-six years ago, I titled our conversation “Civil Society, Toleration, and All That.” Both topics were very timely. “Civil Society” was of utmost concern to the people in Eastern Europe, who only several years earlier had freed themselves from Soviet rule. Their primary goal was to rebuild “civil society,” create social structures, free from ideological dominion. “Toleration,” on the other hand, was more of a concern in Western countries, probably because of the rising pressure of what was termed “multiculturalism.” The question of how to respond to contradictory opinions, different cultural assumptions, relativism of values, etc., naturally resulted in invoking the old idea of toleration. When I reread our conversation recently, I was struck by the obsolescence of these topics.
The last thing one can say about America is that it is multicultural. It may be multi-racial or -ethnic, but not multicultural. Ignorance of other cultures and nations, civilizations, knowledge of foreign languages, is dismal. If there is any content to the term “multiculturalism” in America, it means that there is a great number of ethnic restaurants, which Americans occasionally go to. It is not an exaggeration to say that today’s America is totally monolithic.
The idea of multiculturalism and toleration runs counter to the official Politically Correct orthodoxy, which is based on the premise that only one set of views is right, and therefore we can dispense with tolerating opposing views. In fact, the attitude of the Left, or ultra-Liberals, is that tolerating opposing views is wrong because the opponents are morally wrong. Thus, we no longer need to tolerate others’ views; we should actively fight them. Disinviting speakers to American colleges, shouting them down, canceling their lectures, firing people from their jobs for saying “one word too much,” ostracizing public figures for saying something that is not Politically Correct, is totally normal in American life.
Do you have an explanation as to what happened between the time we talked over two decades ago and now?
Jonathan Clark (JC): I have been trying to think of explanations, with little success. However, I have attempted a brief outline, in a thousand words, which is due to appear in the September issue of the UK magazine Standpoint.
I suggest – to reply directly to your question – that multiculturalism is a new ideology. It claims to respect all cultures; in reality, it hands power to the elites that administer the practical arrangements for which the ideology serves as a smokescreen. Civil society, across much of western Europe and parts of the USA, was partly rebuilt by mass migrations; toleration was demanded in order to defend the new plural societies that mass migration (and other developments) were bringing into being; democracy was reshaped in order to defend in power the elites that administered the system. Hence one of the key phenomena of our time, most clearly visible in the universities but evident everywhere: the rise of the administrators in numbers, power, and wealth.
In the United States and Russia, the vast distances, and the difficulty of learning about other cultures, homogenize the population to a marked degree: this makes the control of these populations by the techniques still labeled ‘democracy’ much more effective than it still is, say, in the UK. There, the referendum of 23 June 2016 that led to a vote to leave the European Union was, among other things, a powerful reaction against such trends.
According to Fukuyama, the world exhausted its’ ideological alternatives: Liberalism and free market economy appeared to be the future of mankind, the fulfillment of human aspirations. Almost everyone—except you, and I shall return to this point in a moment—subscribed to his idea. Today, thirty years later, Fukuyama’s thesis, to use Marx’s expression, belongs to the Dustbin of History. Looking through the lenses of contemporary events, it appears almost laughable, but it was not then; no one ridiculed it, and, frankly, it sounded very convincing.
As a historian, how do you explain what is happening in the Western world? Are we witnessing a rebellion against Liberalism? Or, to put it in historical terms, is the rise of nationalism a response to the Enlightenment idea of universal human nature, the abstract nature divorced from tradition, history, religion, and man’s need to belong to a community?
JC: I suggest that ‘nationalism’ is the proper name for a new ideology, coined in continental Europe in response to the French Revolution. Other ways of picturing the commonalities of the populations of differing polities had long been available, and still are. There is not, then, one thing called ‘nationalism’ that currently reasserts itself. Rather, populations reassert their identities against groups within (liberal elites) and organizations without (multinational bodies, like the EU) that assert the rival values of what they call cosmopolitanism.
“Liberalism” is a doctrine that has evolved many meanings since it was coined in the early nineteenth century; today it includes, quite prominently, the rejection of religion either as metaphysics or as identity, and the rejection of the claims to allegiance of the nation state. The quite narrow identification of liberalism with free trade seemed in 1991 to be very forward-looking; now, it seems more of a throwback to 1891. Liberalism has moved on in ways hardly anticipated in 1991.
ZJ: A few years ago, Ryszard Legutko published a book titled The Demon in Democracy. Its subtitle reads: Totalitarian Temptations in Free Societies. Legutko points out how similar today’s liberal democracies are to former Communist—totalitarian—societies. Anyone who was born under socialism, as were Legutko and I, has the same reaction: “We have seen it before. How is it possible?
History is repeating itself; before it was called socialism, today it is socialism’s former rival—liberal democracy, which threatens us. It eliminates, through public ostracism and legislation, everyone who dares to be different, who dares to think differently. Under Communism, it was the “class-enemy,” “enemy of the state”; under liberalism the enemy is called a “sexist, racist, homophobe, xenophobe, misogynist, ageist”—that is, the enemy of equality!
Once again, how, as a historian, do you explain the “convergence” of the two systems, which for a hundred and fifty years appeared to be inimical? Has Liberal-democracy become totalitarian, and if so why?
JC: I suggest that the divergence in the meaning of liberalism, between freeing the individual from the community and identifying those unacceptable beliefs and actions that justified the intervention of the community, was there already in the work of John Stuart Mill. The same contradiction was present in socialism. But with the ebbing tide of socialism since 1989, the long-standing problem within liberalism emerges into clear view. What is new, I suggest, is the enormous expansion of the language of universal human rights since the 1970s, and the scope this gives to the new administrative elites to exercise their power in the name of the coercive component of liberalism.
ZJ: Let me go back to our old conversation and remind you of what you said: “I think it is extremely unfortunate if Eastern Europeans or Russians imagine that the only alternative to the Communist state is a Liberal state. They will immediately go from one unhappy state form to another equally unhappy state form.” You are a historian, not a prophet, but what you said in 1993 now sounds almost like a prophesy. Legutko’s book, in which he draws parallels between Communism and Liberalism, is a perfect illustration of your claim about one “unhappy state form” traded for another “unhappy state form.”
How is it that you knew what the Future holds for us, whereas everyone else had to wait another twenty-five years for history to unfold itself to fulfill your prophesy? Do you have a particular gift for prophesy? Did your study of history tell you Liberalism is bound to produce “an unhappy state” of affairs just like socialism did? If so, why?
JC: I claim no gift of foresight; academic history confers no such faculty. I had merely been taught to be a sceptic, to appreciate that everything changes, that there are no permanent secular truths, and that every secular ideology experiences a trajectory from inception through flourishing to decline. I also appreciated that although names (like ‘liberalism’ or ‘democracy’) remain the same, their content can change radically. These predispositions made me regard both communism and liberalism from the outside.
ZJ: Liberalism’s unhealthy state was recently acknowledged even by the editors of The Economist. On September 15th, 2018, The Economist published “A Manifesto,” their aim being to “rekindle the spirit of radicalism.”
In it, we read: “Liberalism made the modern world, but the modern world is turning against it. Europe and America are in the throes of a popular rebellion against liberal elites, who are seen as self-serving and unable, or unwilling to solve the problems of ordinary people.”
For The Economist this is profoundly worrying. We were created 175 years ago to campaign for liberalism—not the leftish ‘progressivism’ of American university campuses or the rightish “ultraliberalism” conjured up by the French commentariat, but a universal commitment to individual dignity, open markets, limited government and a faith in human progress brought about by debate and reform.
There is one minor point in the language of The Economist, which, I believe, is of historical significance: “radicalism.” If I remember correctly, at your seminar in Chicago 26 years ago, you said something to the effect that the premise of “Radicalism” is the doctrine of the natural equality of all men. Can you comment on that?
JC: I forget what, exactly, I taught about ‘radicalism’ in Chicago in the early 1990s. But I adopted the position at about that time that radicalism was the proper name for a new doctrine, coined in England around 1820, combining programmatic atheism, Ricardian economics and universal suffrage. This term, too, has been used to cover a range of evolving positions, and is now too vague to be meaningful in the way in which The Economist wanted to use it.
ZJ: This leads me to my next question. It is hardly possible to have a conversation today without sooner or later using the terms “liberal,” “liberalism,” “democracy,” or “liberal-democracy.” This was not so in the 18th century. If I am not mistaken, the term “liberal” in the 18th century did not have a political connotation. Also, neither democracy nor liberalism can be found in Voltaire’s Philosophical Dictionary, published in 1764. One is impelled to ask, how could the people of the Enlightenment go without using such words?
JC: Easily. They were preoccupied with other things, meaningful to them but largely neglected by us (we no longer share Paine’s prioritization of kings and aristocrats, or his lifelong antipathy to Trinitarian Christianity). We need also to understand the term ‘the Enlightenment’ historically, as a term of historical art unknown in the eighteenth century and propagated chiefly since the 1960s.
ZJ: In your Revolution and Rebellion, you write: “To attempt to write the history of liberalism before 1820’s is thus, in point of method, akin to attempting to write the history of the 18th century motor car. There were, of course, forms of transport which performed many of the functions which the motor car later performed, the sedan chair among them. Yet to explain the sedan chair as if it were an early version of the motor car, and by implication to condemn it for failing so lamentably to evolve into the motor car, is to turn a modern error of scholarly method into a failure of men in a past society.” The origin of the term is obscure, but you trace the origins of Liberalism not to politics, but theology, and point to the teaching of theology at Oxford.
JC: This was an early expression of my rejection of the methodological error of anachronism. I later learned much more about what ‘liberalism’ was, when first formulated in c. 1820.
ZJ: Let me go back to The Economist. However well-intentioned The Economist’s statement is, to me—someone who spent the first twenty-five years of his life under Socialism—it sounds like the statements made by the Communists. Each time, after a popular rebellion and crisis—be it the invasion of Hungry in 1956, or Czechoslovakia in 1968, events in Poland in 1971, the Solidarity movement in the early 1980s, and so on—the Communists would look for a scapegoat to blame. It was either the Party apparatchiks, the former Politburo members, the executive committees on high, middle and low level—but never the idea of Socialism. We were assured by the Communist Party that there was nothing wrong with the idea of socialism; the execution was imperfect.
When I read The Economist’s “Manifesto,” I recalled that Communist slogan: “Socialism Yes; Distortions No!” which can be reformulated: “Liberalism—Yes, Politically Correct distortions—No.” “There is nothing wrong with the idea of Liberalism”; the problem, as the editors claim, is “the self-serving liberal elites” who let “ordinary people” down, just like the Central Committee of the Communist Party let “the toiling masses” down, or academic radicals.
What is happening now looks like a mirror image of what we have seen under Socialism. Even the language sounds the same.
Do you agree that there are very close parallels between the two ideologies? Would you also agree that if there is an explanation as to why they exist, it is because both Socialism and Liberalism are the twin children of the same parent—the idea of equality? They may have looked dissimilar for some time, in their childhood and adolescent stages, but when they reached maturity, they seem to act alike.
JC: I do agree that there are structural and procedural similarities. To discern their substantive commonalities one would need to explore the young Marx’s work on religion, and here I defer to others. To understand liberalism, it would help to discern J. S. Mill’s rejection of the Anglican orthodoxy of his day. I don’t see ‘equality’ as an autonomous variable.
As to periodicals, I find the general stance of The Economist remarkably similar to that of the columnists of the Financial Times – this paper has evidently been captured by politicized liberals who regularly condescend to those who voted for Brexit in the 2016 referendum.
ZJ: Let me turn to the problem of academia, which, as it is constituted now, presents itself as a very serious problem, and the ideology disseminated therein permeates the society at large. Let me quote a fragment from an article by John Gray, the author of many books on liberalism.
In his TLS (March, 27, 2018) article titled “The Problem of Hyper-Liberalism,” Gray wrote: “For liberals the recent transformation of universities into institutions devoted to the eradication of thought crime must seem paradoxical. In the past higher education was avowedly shaped by an ideal of unfettered inquiry. Varieties of social democrats and conservatives, liberals and Marxists taught and researched alongside scholars with no strong political views. Academic disciplines cherished their orthodoxies, and dissenters could face difficulties in being heard. But visiting lecturers were rarely disinvited because their views were deemed unspeakable, course readings were not routinely screened in case they contained material that students might find discomforting, and faculty members who departed from the prevailing consensus did not face attempts to silence them or terminate their careers… Judged by old-fashioned standards, this is the opposite of what liberals have stood for. But what has happened in higher education is not that liberalism has been supplanted by some other ruling philosophy. Instead, a hyper-liberal ideology has developed that aims to purge society of any trace of other views of the world. If a regime of censorship prevails in universities, it is because they have become vehicles for this project.” And: “When students from China study in Western countries one of the lessons they learn is that the enforcement of intellectual orthodoxy does not require an authoritarian government. In institutions that proclaim their commitment to critical inquiry, censorship is most effective when it is self-imposed. A defining feature of tyranny, the policing of opinion is now established practice in societies that believe themselves to be freer than they have ever been.”
The way Gray formulates the problem it is reminiscent of George Orwell’s 1984. However, for Orwellian Communist orthodoxy to work, one needed Ministry of Truth, Thought-Police, an army of informants, brainwashing, and so on. In America, we need none of this! We police ourselves, we destroy history, remove monuments, decry as enemies everyone who is against equality, who is for hierarchy and standards of excellence, and we voluntarily confess “crimes.”
There isn’t a day that passes by without a public figure apologizing for a racist, sexist, or homophobic remark. Confessions are a daily routine in America. You are accused of a crime, you make a public confession only to disappear, just like in Orwell. Orwell did not invent the idea of confession; he got it from the Stalinist trials of the 1930s (described by Arthur Koestler in his Darkness at Noon). Another parallel between Communism and liberal-democracy! Except that under Communism, people were threatened with bayonets, torture, and death. Yet many of them—the dissidents and the majority of society—opposed it. Here we have no opposition, people confess freely. The majority is docile. Can you explain how we came to be where we are now?
JC: John Gray and I experienced the Oxford of the 1980s and 1990s, and drew similar conclusions from it; he has continued to observe the university world in the UK, as I have done in the USA. Part of my response is contained in my article soon to appear in Standpoint. I would add to your account of the USA the lasting legacy of New England Puritanism, the consequent ‘paranoid style’ that has been held to characterize US politics, and the Puritanical zeal to enforce confessions and persecute heretical opponents. The past is always with us, and people in the present do not escape their determinative heritage by claiming to be secular.
ZJ:Heather MacDonald, a conservative American commentator of the Manhattan Institute, made a claim that the problem of today’s America is that the infantile academic mentality has spilled over to the public realm. The language, behavior, and ways of thinking that were characteristic of academia 20, or even 30 years ago, is now the dominant mentality of adult Americans, who behave like children. I believe her analysis is correct. What appeared to be a childish mentality—culture wars, fights over Great Books programs (or classics), as we call it in the US, and similar “academic” issues, to which not too many people paid serious attention in the past—is now a prominent way of thinking in the US. Academia was never as important as it is now!
JC: American conservatives are condemned to grapple unsuccessfully with a major problem: what, exactly, would American conservatives conserve? By implication, their civic religion, which is essentially a tradition of world revolution. It comes in a variety of forms, more or less extreme. But it is true of this revolution, as of all, that it takes time to work out its full implications. A parochial and campus contest over ‘Great Books’ was an expression of this, but not the cause. I find it difficult to think that but for certain tactical mistakes on US campuses 20 or 30 years ago, all would have been well. But I fully agree that such issues are often most clearly seen within the university world, now a very large one, as they were formerly most clearly seen in the coal mines and the shipyards.
ZJ: Besides Allan Bloom and E.D. Hirsch, when the attack on Great Books started 30 years ago with the blessing from Jessie Jackson, who famously announced that “Western Culture’s got to go”—who else would think that it matters whether you read your Plato, Aristotle, St. Thomas, Pascal, Marlowe, or Milton, Burke, Montesquieu, and Tocqueville? And yet, it does! It makes a difference whether you study serious thinkers or ephemeral authors, whose claim to fame is whether they are “supportive” of the “minority causes.”
JC: It should make a great difference to students to discover that these thinkers, or thousands of others like them, did not anticipate the American civic religion; indeed that their values were often antithetical to it. Quite right, then, that today’s cultural warriors work to block recollection of the past, and shepherd even History students into more and more modern time frames. But remember that ‘western culture’ or ‘western civilization’ are very much inventions of the twentieth-century United States, little known elsewhere; this says something of major importance about the long-term nature of the host culture.
ZJ: Today’s academia, as you know, is the Mecca of un-thought. Gender studies, Women’s Studies, all kinds of -studies replaced Departments of … Do you think that we didn’t pay enough attention to what was going to happen? Or, did we not realize how important academic disciplines are for the intellectual health of a nation? Were we simply too cowardly to stand up and stop the academic radicals from taking over universities?
JC: Many academic disciplines were undermined in the 1960s and 1970s by the Marxist and marxisant Left; but this is old news, and is largely forgotten by today’s commentators. Future histories of the long term development of academe will need to explain what happened subsequently. Clearly, Marx himself hardly anticipated the developments you refer to. Nor did his followers into the 1960s, however subtle and intelligent; consider, as just one instance, the absence of such themes from E. P. Thompson’s The Making of the English Working Class (1964).
Did the Pyrrhic victory of anti-Marxist positivist scholarship so weaken it that scholarship in many areas could evolve into interest-group advocacy? Or did many of those positivist scholars themselves seek to promote their society’s myth of origins, so that their own traditions of advocacy could be taken over and used against them? There is, of course, nothing wrong with studying gender, or the position of women in society, and the rest; indeed it is perfectly proper to do so. What has been marked has been the ideological freight that these movements have been made to carry.
ZJ: Your books abound in criticism and scholarly “attacks” on former historians. I take it to be a sign of a healthy intellectual atmosphere when scholars do it.
Let me invoke a few names: Hobsbawm, E.P. Thompson, Raymond Williams, Christopher Hill, Sidney Hook or Irving Howe in America, and many others. They all were on the Left, or they were the Old Left, and one can hardly imagine the history of intellectual life without them. Whatever scholarly disagreements you may have with them, methodological problems you find in their works, you cannot, I dare say, claim that they were scholarly incompetent. Can one say the same thing about the proponents of the new -studies? Leaving aside the problem of comprehensibility of what they write, do the new studies advance our knowledge of anything, the same way that the Old Left inspired you to attack?
JC: You are right to think that I had considerable respect for the figures you mention: it was possible to engage with their work, whether one agreed or disagreed. The contrast is considerable with a number or present-day schools, and scholars, for whom a private language defends their enforcement of values in ways not open to debate. The prevalence of such assumptions explains how easy it is for dissentient arguments and individuals to be excluded from universities today. I am concerned that such abuses will only provoke an equally extreme reaction in the opposite direction. But at present the natural stance of people of my persuasion is often indifference to that which cannot enter into debate.
ZJ: As far as I know, you had your intellectual heroes, so to say, or at least people who influenced you, whom you admire. Let me mention three names of people whom you knew personally, and for whom, as far as I know, you have intellectual respect: Peter Laslett, a Cambridge historian, author of the classic, The World We Have Lost; Edward Shils, America’s greatest sociologist, whom, if I am correct, you met as a student at Cambridge, where you studied; Leszek Kolakowski, who was your colleague and friend at All Souls College in Oxford, and François Furet, an eminent French historian of the French Revolution, who invited you as a Visiting Professor in the prestigious Committee on Social Thought, at the University of Chicago. Can you say a few words about the way in which they impacted you, and how influential you think their works are?
JC: The task of historians is to commune with the dead, and I do just that with these great men. When teaching courses on historical methodology to graduate students in the USA, I would distribute photographs and obituaries of these and other such greats (Butterfield, Elton) in the hope that my students would reflect on their work, and come (however distantly) to stand in the apostolic succession. Their effect on me was that of intellectual liberation; they did not ask me to follow their doctrine, but implicitly showed me how to escape the orthodoxies that were all around me when I was an undergraduate.
ZJ: You gained the reputation not only of being “an eminent English historian of English history,” but, if you don’t mind, “enfant terrible” of English history, which I take to be a high praise, and, given your contribution to the history of England, well deserved. Your English Society is a book that no scholar of English history can bypass.
JC: Historians are seldom good at reconstructing their own intellectual development, and I am sure that I would be well below average if I tried systematically to do so. As to the ‘enfant terrible’ phase, I can say that I came on the scene in the 1980s when modernism was breaking up, and its senior exponents found it convenient to blame others for this; it was easier, and safer, for them to revile their juniors than to understand what was happening. On reflection, there may have been other historians of my generation who were as infantile, or as terrible, but it would be ungenerous to name them. We all have our faults. At least I try not to criticize those who are junior to me in years, if I can possibly avoid it.
Your Revolution and Rebellion was released in 1985, your opus magnum, English Society, in 1986, when—I want to emphasize—you were only in your mid-thirties. Was it just you (your historical ingenuity, so to speak), or your Cambridge education that made you into the historian you are now? What is your background, experiences, schools, and, most importantly, what motivated you to rewrite the history of English society in the 17th and 18th centuries? I am not a historian, but have heard from others that, controversial as your thesis is, no student of 17th- or 18th-centuries can by-pass it? You “derailed” English historiography, didn’t you?
JC: Others must judge. But I may have been in the right place at the right time when it came to the intellectual developments that you refer to. Especially, seventeenth- and eighteenth-century English society played a key role in the twentieth-century account of modernism. At least I criticized my seniors, who were all too able to defend themselves by the means normally employed in academe.
ZJ: Your name, like that of Roger Scruton, is associated with the term “Conservative”—conservative in the British or continental sense. I remember, however, that in a short piece you wrote for a Bulgarian journal named Panorama more than two decades ago, you said something to the effect that the labels of Conservative, Liberal, Radical, only complicate our understanding of history, and that you hope that we can get beyond them. But one could say that, in so far as they persevere in existence, they point to our cultural and political legacy, whose origins can be traced to the French Revolution of 1789.
The old labels—Liberal and Conservative—assumed, however, new names: Politically Correct and non-Politically Correct. In today’s language, the first one means the enemy of sexism, racism, misogyny, homophobia, xenophobia, ageism, and chauvinism. As an ideological weapon, they are much more effective than the old labels, and serve to morally discredit the opponent. In the past, you could be a conservative or a liberal, without being accused of moral wrongness. Today, if you are not Politically Correct, you are not against the “phobias” and “isms,” which means, you are in the “moral wrong.” Would you agree that they are much more potent than the old labels?
JC: My project was always to understand these old labels historically, rather than to defend or adopt any one of them for myself. Certainly, to understand them historically is a profoundly subversive enterprise. Perhaps the recent discrediting of the claims to timeless applicability of the political language new in c. 1815-48 is one reason why a variety of present-day reformist or revolutionary initiatives meet with such ineffectual opposition from political parties calling themselves Conservative.
ZJ: Could we say that those labels literally mean blindness to all differences? Do you think that, in so far as those terms aim at erasing differences, they are the children of the idea of equality, and to be against equality is to be in the “moral wrong”?
JC: Such labels are intended to claim that those whom they identify are possessed of a coherent ideology. But were they, and are they? I am skeptical about that; everything changes. I am also cautious about accepting ideologies on their own terms: for me, equality is a theological position, to be debated as such.
ZJ: Could we say that, to the degree that the terms I used are operational, the legacy of the Enlightenment and the French Revolution is still very much alive, and that we’re seeing the unfolding—perhaps for the last time—of the consequences of the 1789 events?
JC: One might say that as we better understand the history of the American and French Revolutions, and of eighteenth-century thought (not ‘the Enlightenment’), we are emancipated from the mythologies that grew up to sanitize these things. Perhaps that merely frees us to make different sorts of mistake.
ZJ: If I am correct, one of your major historical claims, which also explains the American Revolution, is that the doctrine of equality of all men (all Men are created equal) comes from those thinkers who were most eager to attack the Anglican doctrine? Secondly, the American Revolution has little to do with democracy. As you point out, the idea of universal suffrage arises much later. Can you elaborate on these points?
JC: For my thoughts on these difficult matters, please see my book Thomas Paine. There I accept that equality is an idea the origin of which needs to be explained; it does not itself explain the American Revolution. The same is true of the idea of universal suffrage. But to make these points in simple terms is insufficient; the point is to substantiate them. I look forward to a debate.
ZJ: Another topic or term which occupies today’s social and political conversations is nationalism. If I am not mistaken, your claim is that nationalism, as we understand it today, is a product of 19th century cultural and political vicissitudes, and that the 18th century form of nationalism is not applicable to our understanding. Is it correct to say that the basis of nationalism, under the “ancien régime,” is law and religion?
JC: Law and religion, as systems of ideas shaping shared historical experience. I suggest that ‘blood and soil’ nationalisms were continental European innovations of the early nineteenth century; I do not subscribe to them.
ZJ: When did we start using the term “nationalism” and why? Given that under the Ancien Régime the sense of nationality was different, what are the consequences of it?
JC: Later than we think. The consequences? If patriotism led to war, nationalism additionally led to genocide.
ZJ: Let me ask you about the American Revolution. Was it a revolution? As far as I know, you have very unique interpretation of what it was and why it happened. Can you explain your position?
JC: It began as a revolution in a much older sense (as the term was applied, for example, to the change of government in England in 1688). But it ended as an unanticipated social upheaval, the extent and implications of which were not fully appreciated until events in France after 1789 could be reflected on. The term ‘revolution’ remained; its content developed fundamentally.
ZJ: Other terms, very closely related, which I would like to talk about are hierarchy and privilege. Today, they sound like an echo from a foreign land. Both terms, however, belong to the history of the world and our Western tradition, and were alive and well not long ago (roughly two hundred years). Can you explain what happened? How did they fade away?
JC: I used to explain to my American students that the difference between US and UK society was that UK society seemed very formal and hierarchical from the outside, but that once you were inside you appreciated that it was remarkably informal and egalitarian. Whereas US society made a great profession of informality and casualness, but was in reality rigid, authoritarian and stratified. Paine’s critique of hierarchy and privilege allowed elites to disown the terms, but retain the things.
All societies are built around hierarchy and privilege. The difference is who enjoys these things and what their premises are. Today, the highest paid employees of US universities are the sports coaches.
ZJ: Let me take you back to the mid-1990s. You may not remember, but I want to remind you of a small incident. I visited you at All Souls College in Oxford, where you gave me a tour through the College. All Souls is not open to visitors, and if you want to see the beautiful courtyard, you can peek through the cast-iron gate. I said to you, “Jonathan, I heard that as a fellow you have a right to walk on the lawn.” To which, you responded, very sincerely, and in a somewhat agitated voice, “I have a privilege.”
Every time I hear the word “right,” I recall this little incident. What you said struck me as something so rudimentary, and yet I, and ostensibly many others, have never thought about it. We stood on the grass while the porter was taking a picture. There were a bunch of tourists looking at us through the openings in the gate.
What I understood is that a privilege is a right based on merit, limited to a small group of elect people; whereas a right is a privilege extended to everyone, regardless of merit. If all people had the right to walk on the lawn in All Souls, the lawn would be destroyed within a week, and thus the idea of a right to walk on the lawn would be flawed.
To use an analogy, would you say that one of the gravest problems of the world today is the idea of rights? Everybody has a right to everything regardless of merit, which must lead to the destruction of institutions, just like the lawn.
Recently, a few schools in the US abolished distinctions, and the SAT (Scholastic Aptitude Test, which is the basis for admissions in many schools) is under attack. One can be pretty sure that it will be done away with, and then we will have no criteria to distinguish between students of greater or lesser intelligence, and low-level students will have the same right to attend prestigious schools as the high-level ones.
All this leads me to my question: can a civilization go on living if we do not return to the idea of privilege, merit, and thus hierarchy, which it would naturally recreate?
Implicitly, I am recommending a return of the meaning of rights to older ideas of privilege. The language of universal human rights, I suggest, is less and less effective in delivering good things to suffering humanity.
ZJ: Would you agree that the biggest fear of modern Western societies is inequality? It appears that all social and political structures aim at bolstering equality, and that any allusion to hierarchy or merit is met with dread?
JC: Inequality is everywhere in present-day advanced societies. The question is how it can be made acceptable to a wider public opinion. Today, it is hidden by the liberal rich from the traditional poor chiefly by geographical distance. This defence cannot be relied on.
ZJ: Let me take you back to the beginning of Western history: Plato’s Athens.
In his Republic, Bk VIII, Plato says: “I suppose that when a democratic city, once it’s thirsted for freedom, gets bad winebearers as its leaders and gets more drunk than it should on this unmixed draught, then, unless the rulers are very gentle and provide a great deal of freedom, it punishes them, charging them with being polluted and oligarchs.” “Yes,” he said, “that’s what they do.” “And it spatters with mud those who are obedient, alleging that they are willing slaves of the rulers and nothings,” I said, “while it praises and honors—both in private and in public—the rulers who are like the ruled and the ruled who are like the rulers. Isn’t it necessary in such a city that freedom spread to everything?” “How could it be otherwise?” “And, my friend,” I said, “for it to filter down to the private houses and end up by anarchy’s being planted in the very beasts?” “How do we mean that?” he said. “That a father,” I said, “habituates himself to be like his child and fear his sons, and a son habituates himself to be like his father and to have no shame before or fear of his parents—that’s so he may be free; and metic is on an equal level with townsman and townsman with metic, and similarly with the foreigner.” “Yes,” he said, “that’s what happens.”
As Plato explains next, anarchy follows, which ends by the appearance of a tyrant who reintroduces order. The lesson we learn from the Athenian philosopher is that equality works like an acid, which dissolves hierarchy or authority, and produces anarchy. Tyranny is the natural outcome of democratic equality.
Looking at the West, and America in particular, everywhere we see signs of greater and greater lawlessness and dissolution of authority. Plato, probably, would not have a problem recognizing what the Future holds for us. Since your historical expertise made you somewhat of a prophet when we talked twenty-six years ago, what is your prophesy for the future?
JC: That anarchy and stability are not an either/or choice; it is a question of degree. Statistics of gun-related homicides, and of citizens shot dead by the police, are useful indicies of the degree to which anarchy is already with us. The authority of parents over children is hard to measure, but contemporary observers remarked on the transformation in this respect brought about in the Thirteen Colonies by the Revolution. I suspect that the future tends to be like the present, only more so.
ZJ: You are English. An overwhelming majority of the population in the UK is fond of monarchy. Partly, I presume, the reason is the deep-rooted English attachment to tradition; partly, because of the personality of the Queen, who fulfilled her role with incredible dignity for over half a century. However, my question to you is of a historical nature. Given the mess in which your country has found itself with Brexit, shouldn’t we have doubts about the efficacy, or even the validity of a parliamentary system (the same can be said of the US Congress, which can hardly pass any piece of legislation, and is always stuck in a gridlock)?
JC: The UK constitution is flexible, and continually changing. I would not be surprised if it changed in significant ways to adjust to exit from the EU. Members of the UK Parliament have fallen into considerable disesteem for their handling of this matter; the monarchy will survive, but many of them may lose their seats. Whereas the US Constitution is relatively inflexible, and members of Congress very hard to remove; this does not bode well.
ZJ: One cannot imagine a similar situation if we lived under constitution or limited monarchy. There are quite a few countries in Europe which have monarchs: Norway, Sweden, Denmark, Spain, Belgium and the Netherlands. I doubt many people would take my suggestion seriously, but don’t you think it’s time to reconsider our intellectual assumptions about political systems?
One could cherish, as did John Stuart Mill in the 19th-century, and the American Founding Fathers (particularly Jefferson, who was extremely hostile to monarchy), the idea that democracy is the hope for the future, and will eliminate monarchy’s problems. However, when you look around, it appears that we have too much of it, and Plato would agree with us, saying that we are heading toward anarchy.
JC: I would suggest that the US system, combining the roles of head of state and head of the executive, has created a post that almost no-one has the talent to fill (cf. the position of Roman Emperor).
ZJ: Thank you Dr. Clark.
The image shows, “A Private View at the Royal Academy,” by William Powell Frith, painted in 1883.
The Polish version of this interview appeared in the January issue of Arcana.
Grégoire Canlorbe (GC): You have never hesitated to challenge the usual discourse, which liberals (libertarians, classical-liberals, anarcho-capitalists, free-marketists) have never shunned, even the most conservative among them, by claiming France to be an artificial construction, from its establishment to becoming a unifying state – it is a political work, whose foundation is no more geography than ethnicity or blood. Far from having formed differently from other European nations, France has, according to you, been built around an ethnic and territorial reality, and globally follows the same trajectory in its history. Could you elaborate on that subject?
Philippe Fabry (PF): Yes, it is indeed a common place in the commentary on the history of France to say that it was the state which made the nation; while among our neighbors it would be the nation which made the state. I cannot say if historians believe it, because it is just not the kind of questions that they ask themselves these days. But it is the kind of ready-made thinking that is prized by journalists and politicians who pride themselves on diagnosing the “French trouble.” But, in truth, that dichotomy opposing France to the rest of Europe, if not the world, is fallacious, in two respects. First, all nation-states are constituted according to a standard model (in reality two models, with France using the most frequent one; I will come back to this), where the state does not have a more determinant role than territorial and ethnic factors.
There are two models for the emergence of nation-states. The most common model, the most immediate, primary one, is that of the long-term gathering – around six centuries – of territories and people under one single state authority. The other model is the one that I would call, “secondary,” with the nation-states born by secession, during an independence revolution: That is the case of Rome vis-à-vis the Etruscans; the separated United Provinces, formerly Spanish possessions; and the United States of America. These are formed when a population, geographically and culturally too distant from the state base of a “primary” nation-state, is yet under its control for various reasons.
France belongs, like all major European states, to the first category. The model is as follows. In a populated territorial area, more or less ethnically and linguistically homogeneous, but where there is no state, either because none has ever emerged (for example, Germania of the early Middle Ages), or because it is a former imperial state that has withdrawn (such as, Gaul during Late Antiquity and the early Middle Ages, or Britain after the ebb of the Danes in the 10th-century). The primitive regime is feudalism and therefore extreme political fragmentation.
In the absence of a large-scale exogenous event, generally the invasion by an imperial power, a feudal lord more powerful than the others appears over time, who is logically the one who controls the economic dynamics of the territorial area. This economic dynamic, say, a fertile agricultural region, is very easily identified by looking at a relief map: It is a large plain, the largest in the territorial area.
For example, the Paris Basin in France, the North German Plain for Germany, the Guadalquivir Plain for Spain, the London Basin for Britain. The seigniorial power which relies on this economic dynamic has a decisive advantage in resources and can extend over all the space that is naturally peripheral to it; that is to say, both culturally close, and belonging to a geographically well-defined territorial area: The whole of Gaul for the Paris Basin, including the Breton peninsula; the Massif Central and the smaller plains of Aquitaine and Languedoc; the entire island of Britain for the London Basin, winning over Cornwall, and hilly Wales and Scotland; all of southern Germany for the northern plain, including mountainous Bavaria.
Of course, these centers of power do not stop at sharp boundaries, which for centuries have engendered conflicts over the exact boundaries of the areas of influence. Such conflict zones are generally distinguished by a hybrid character, allowing them to be associated with several groups. Thus, from an ethnic point of view, Britain may be linked to France by way of England, language linked Alsace to Germany, while the largest geographic area of the Paris Basin made it lean towards France, and so on. It is rare that a border so clearly separates two territorial areas that it is never challenged; but we can say that this was the case of the Pyrenees between France and Spain – thus, Roussillon, close to Catalan culture, did not become French until the 18th-century.
In effect, dominant seigniorial power then builds the state, first by going beyond the feudal system and creating an assembly, representative of the orders: Urban bourgeoisie, nobility, clergy, to which the peasantry is added in the Nordic countries. Such assembly allows the dominant seigniorial power to give itself a higher stature than that of the rest of the nobility and to embody the first national representation.
This new paradigm leads to the construction of an administration, which exercises regalian functions, more and more uniformly throughout the controlled territory. The population gathered under said authority gradually becomes a political community, becomes culturally uniform, and develops a national feeling. And it is when this national feeling is sufficiently present, and when some event occurs – say, a lost war which discredits the regime, that is, the “administrative monarchy” – then, what I call a movement of national revolution comes about, which is the final stage in the constitution of a nation-state, thus making the nation the true holder of sovereignty, and therefore of the power of the state, through a parliamentary regime. That revolutionary movement lasts about forty years and goes through various systematic stages: Collapse of the regime, radicalization of the revolutionary phenomenon, military dictatorship, partial restoration of the old regime, and final parliamentary change.
So it is always the state which makes the nation; but at the same time the nation which arouses the state. The geographic expansion of the state is constrained by cultural, demographic, linguistic and obviously purely geographic factors, but its emergence and consolidation are themselves the product of an ethno-geographic reality. It is a kind of feedback loop, and it is rare that a state absolutely corresponds to its natural ethnico-geographical zone: The competition of large states creates disputed zones, which are often resolved, either through an arbitrary delimitation, or through fragmentation and the appearance of multi-ethnic, multicultural, plurilingual buffer states like Belgium or Switzerland – which may end up developing their own identity, certainly, but one more accidental.
This determinism is not absolute and leaves the possibility of several combinations; but it is clear that it is the most “obvious” one which generally triumphs. Thus, in France, two nations could have been born, because there are two basins: The Parisian and the Aquitanian. For a long time, Bordeaux was the capital of that Aquitaine Basin, and Aquitaine dominated the country of Oc; while the country of Oïl depended more naturally on Paris.
The distinction between the two countries could have endured, since each had a certain linguistic and cultural unity: The language of Oc against the language of Oïl, a country of written law against a country of customary law. But first the Parisian Basin is much larger than the Bordeaux Basin, and second the “natural” territorial area was rather on the scale of the whole of the former territory of Gaul, whose settlement base had largely remained the same as during antiquity (the Great Migrations did not constitute a real demographic break). The Paris Basin therefore succeeded in its calling to dominate the whole, which has created France.
Another example. Germany saw the development of two centers capable of unifying the German nation: Austria and Prussia. Prussia controlled the plain of North Germany, and Austria dominated the plain of Pannonia (Hungary). That resulted in a division of the Germanic space between the two centers until the Great War, and ultimately the impossibility of keeping them lastingly unified after the failure of the Third Reich – even though the Germany of the seven electors, appointed by the Golden Bull of 1356, covered all of those German-speaking territories.
I think political debate would gain a lot, if these invariants of the state and national construction are better known, because they say a lot about what can or cannot be a nation-state, and about the deleterious effects that, for example, a constituted mass immigration can have on a nation-state.
And as for liberals (libertarians, from classical-liberals to anarcho-capitalists), there is a remark that I like to make to them, and that they generally take badly, and it is this – that if the nation-state is built in such a systematic way, it is because it is the most efficient product on the public security market, so that if we were to recreate an anarchic society, in the long term, it would be towards the re-emergence of nation-states that the political and social order would tend.
GC: While Greco-Roman paganism (on that point, in phase with Judaism) breaks away from the veneration of Mother Nature (the pre-Indo-European gynecocratic spirit), the biblical conception of time as linear (and of cosmic and human history as endowed with a beginning, an end, and a progression) contrasts with the pagan motif of the eternal return of the same. You assert both your Catholic heritage and your cyclical conception of history. How is that duality reconciled within your intellectual life?
PF: It always seemed natural to me, faced with that kind of conceptual opposition, to think that the truth was more likely to be a mixture of the two. Cyclicity and linearity are not necessarily contradictory, if we consider that there are several scales to consider, several temporalities. And it seems obvious to me that the story is both cyclical and linear, which is not only proper to human history, but also to natural history.
Take the evolution of species: It is linear; there is no turning back. But it is based on a cyclical phenomenon, which is the life of living individuals: Their conception, their birth, their maturation, their reproduction, their death. It is through that recurrence that nature, through mutations, which are then selected naturally, makes species evolve.
The same goes for humanity: It is subject to certain recurrences; but those recurrences end up drawing a linear pattern and a general progression – in the demographic mass of the species, the size of its political communities, its scientific and technical power, its artistic sophistication. Its destiny is linear; but its embodiment is recursive – which led me to suggest, and my work always leads me further in that direction, that human history can be modeled in the mathematical form of a cellular automaton, which is also a tool for modeling the appearance and development of life.
And I must also note that this double cyclical and linear conception places me in a situation which is a sort of mise en abîme: I thus notice, within the framework of the parallel that I draw between the history of modern Europe and that of ancient Greece, that the study of history itself goes through three great stages, more and more intellectually sophisticated.
First, there are the chroniclers, who are interested in events and great characters and who produce fairly simple narratives. That is the case of the Greeks before Herodotus, with the poems of Homer, in particular, and medieval chroniclers like Einhard or Gregory of Tours.
Second, there are the historians more curious about fundamental movements, like Thucydides or Voltaire, who analyze the economic and social foundations of history.
And, third, there are those who seek in history the recurrences, the laws, like Polybius (with his theory of anacyclosis), or Plutarch (with his Parallel Lives) in antiquity; and in modern times, Marx, Spengler, Braudel, Toynbee. It is in that last vein that my work falls; and I find it amusing, working on historical cyclicity, to note that those works themselves obey that cyclicity, that I am the logical product of my time. Feeling oneself to be the product of a certain determinism, when one studies precisely the role of determinism, is both very stimulating and the cause of a certain perplexity.
And it also makes you humble, which is precisely one of the fundamental values of the Christian faith. And since the cyclicity of life is not incompatible with that faith, the Church having besides recognized that evolution is “more than a theory;” there is no reason to think that it must be different for the evolution of human societies. On the contrary, it reinforces the idea of the cosmic order, which, assuredly, is a concept as much prized by the ancient Greeks in their cyclical vision as by Christians in their linear vision.
GC: Applying the historionomic approach to the dynamism of political ideas, you present the Right and the Left, not as categories of an alternative, which dates back to the French Revolution, but as a pair of opposites, which crosses all societies and all ages. In that context, you make your own that distinction by historian Fabrice Bouthillon between two forms of centrism: Centrism through the addition of extremes on the chessboard of opinion, versus centrism through the exclusion of those extremes. What does historionomy, armed with such a framework, teach us?
PF: My work on this divide, which I am, in fact, taking up and systematizing into a book, allows me to deepen certain questions dealt with in The Structure of History, which was mainly devoted to the research of the underlying laws of history, likely to explain in particular the models of the nation-state’s construction of which I spoke earlier.
One of the most interesting observations about those models is that not only is the same pattern observable in all major countries, but it takes place over an almost identical duration and at a similar rate – that is to say that within that overall duration, the major phases also always have a similar duration. So, it has something to do with the passing of generations and the circulation of ideas. However, it is precisely this aspect that the study of the issue of the divide provides some clarification: The ideas slide from Left to Right because these two camps bring together the population respectively favorable to change or conservation of an established order.
Since the established order slowly evolves, after a generation the one that the conservatives of the previous generation defended has largely disappeared, while the progressives of the previous generation have become for the most part conservative because the order now established is the one they wanted. The former conservatives are now becoming reactionary, that is to say supporters of the old order, and we are seeing new, more extreme ideas of change appear on the far Left, in the revolutionary fringe.
But reactionaries and revolutionaries have this in common – they are anti-conformists, that is to say, they consider the established order as illegitimate, while the conservatives and the progressives, that is to say the Right and the moderate Left, are conformists, and consider the established order as legitimate.
Most of the time, it is the Right-Left divide which governs political life: Conservatives join forces with reactionaries, and progressives with revolutionaries, to obtain majorities and govern. But in times of crises, there is often a conformist/anti-conformist tension, where those most moderate among the two sides join forces to defend the system in place, while those extreme among both sides find themselves together in the opposition to that order.
There are multiple examples of this: The banking crisis of the 1880s, but also the French referendum on the European Constitution in 2005, or the crisis of the Yellow Vests, for whom the power in place very quickly spoke of “red-browns.” One can also cite the Lega and Five Stars Movementcoalition in Italy, which temporarily succeeded in seizing power from moderates, without ever really being able to get along in the exercise of power, since the two groups had opposite views on numerous topics.
Usually, centrism through the addition of extremes only succeeds in taking power, if a charismatic or skillful figure embodies it and is able to arbitrate between the two sides. That is the case with many great dictators in recent history: Napoleon, Stalin, Hitler. Often, moreover, the analysis of their policy reveals numerous about-faces and a certain ideological flexibility, without which they would not be able to maintain themselves.
Such an analytical grid allows, in particular, to better understand the way things happen during revolutionary periods, which quickly see the two divides alternate – but also to apprehend political developments over time, to understand by example that royalty in France was “on the Left” roughly until Henry IV, and was conservative during the last two centuries of its existence. It makes it possible to understand that there is in reality a great historical continuity, that the French Revolution did not at all make a Right-Left divide suddenly “appear,” which would not have existed before. And it also makes it possible to better model, as I said, the construction of the nation-state, since it is through such circulation of ideas, the effects on society, of the reforms it initiates that the political integration of the nation is brought about.
Indeed, the national construction largely consists of the progressive extension of the political body to the whole of the population. First, the political body of feudal society is composed only of the barons. Then it integrates the bourgeoisie of cities, then the peasantry, then the religious minorities (Protestants, Jews), then the workers, then the women – and today the immigrants. And, at all times, the main objective of the Left bloc is to integrate into the political body the class which is the most powerful among those who are still excluded from it. It is often said, too quickly, that the Left is the camp of equality.
This is both true and false. It is true because, indeed, the heart of the discourse on the Left is always to want to grant equality to a category of population which is excluded from the game. But it is also false, because at the moment, only the ambition of one category counts and the others only serve as foils – yesterday, women only served as foils for the workers’ movement; today sexual minorities, transgenders, and so on, alone serve as foils for the only truly powerful minority, that of non-European immigrants. And that is why the far Left never says a word about the persecution of sexual minorities by those very populations.
As long as the “priority” category is not integrated into the political body, the claims of other minorities are heard only if they are compatible with its own. And once that category is effectively integrated, it in turn becomes conservative and opposes extending rights to the next. To use a famous phrase, “the last to enter closes the door.” And the next must force it open, in turn.
But in nation-states which categorically refuse immigration, for example, that phenomenon cannot continue, since there is no new class of population to integrate. That is the case, I think, with Japan, which is a country very hostile to any immigration and that, in fact, has practically had no far Left for fifty years, because there is no longer anyone to integrate into the political body.
In Europe, on the contrary, we have been for fifty years bringing to light a new class of the excluded – by importing it: This is the non-European, African and/or Muslim immigration. As such, it will become, and is already in the process of doing so, the class whose claims will be hegemonic on the Left. In the next twenty years, we will probably have an Indigenist/Islamist party which will win 20% of the vote. And the order in place should progressively integrate a certain number of values and realize a certain number of demands of those populations, as one did for working-class populations throughout the 20th-century, by establishing not exactly what they demanded at the beginning of the century, communism, but a compromise with the old order, which is our current order: Social democracy.
GC: Presenting Rome and America as twin civilizations, separated by an ocean of centuries, you foresee for the latter a trajectory similar to the fate of the first. Could you elaborate what justifies the establishment of such a comparison – instead of a parallel, for example, between multi-ethnic America and the fragmented Hellenistic empire of Alexander the Great? As concerns the equivalent of Carthage among the enemies of America, do you rather think of Russia, Turkey, or China to play that role?
PF: The comparison between America and Ptolemaic Egypt is actually made by David Cosandey, in his remarkable book,Le Secret de l’Occident (The Secret of the West), where he develops fundamental concepts that I am currently taking up in ongoing works, as they provide practically turnkey explanations that I only groped at before reading this book.
These are the concepts of articulated thalassography, that is to say, the relationship between a geographical area and the length of its coasts – the lower it is, the more the coasts are important compared to the geographical surface, the more that area will be favorable to the development of an intense maritime trade. And, on the other hand, the concept of mereuporia, which designates the stable and lasting political division, which is indirectly linked to the thalassography articulated in the sense that an area with very long coasts often goes hand-in-hand with a multitude of peninsulas and a quite jagged coastline, which form many natural borders and thus favor the emergence of national isolates.
Cosandey thus explains, by geography, the parallel that I have detailed elsewhere between ancient Greece and modern Europe. In the context of the contemporary world, one notices that it is the place with the most articulated thalassography, which has favored, more than elsewhere, both the emergence of nation-states (among the Greeks, city-states) thanks to borders relatively stable over time (as per the model that I outlined above), and on the other hand, a strong development of trade between those bordered communities. And that all of Asia, while devastated for long periods by Mongol invasions that considerably hampered the political development of this region, also had less access to maritime trade and its decisive advantages in terms of transport costs.
As well, one notes that the Mongol invasions of Europe, then the Turkish ones, stopped precisely at the border of Europe with a jagged geography, that is to say, between Vienna and the Carpathians – beyond, are the great plains, open to the four winds, the steppes, where it is very difficult to establish sustainable borders.
Yet Cosandey, who already mentioned the parallel between ancient Greece and modern Europe, noted that after the domination of both, power had passed to larger entities, and on that occasion compares the Seleucid Empire, Eastern and Continental, with Russia, and the Egypt of the Ptolemies with the United States of America. But if the parallel holds for the change of scale, the analogy does not hold in my opinion.
Indeed, what brings the United States of America and Rome together, besides the role of a maritime power dominating the known world, is the internal political order and its history. These are two nations born of an independence revolution: In Rome, it was the Latins who hunted Etruscan kings (even Greco-Etruscans, since one of the ancestors of the kings of Rome was Demaratus, a nobleman from Corinth who immigrated to Italy), while the United States broke away from the British crown due to distance, and the length of time since the first waves of immigration, as well as the mix with populations of Dutch origin, who did not feel much attachment to English kings.
The nations which are the product of an independentist revolution always have a legal-political system that emphasizes the political community and the rights of the citizen; and this is particularly marked in Rome, as in the United States which, once independent, quickly set up a political system whose main concern was the control of power, the rejection of the monarchy, and the guarantee of the rights of the people. In both cases this produced a constitutional system that tended to be more rough-hewn than a highly intellectualized system, but one that was extremely solid and durable.
And it was this political system which allowed progressive growth over a large area, through federation – the Roman domination over Italy was of such a nature – and the development of an imperial republican culture, which is of something other than the search for power of a dynasty. Rome, like the United States, was a liberal [libertarian] superpower, which could go to war when it encountered resistance, but after victory sought a lasting and profitable organization – for example, during the liberation of Greece from the Macedonian occupation. And above all, Rome also exported a model of society, which was precisely that of its law, of municipal organization, all things likely to seduce the elites, even the middle classes of the allied or defeated countries – and which one also finds in the American mode of domination.
All these things, the product of the internal political evolution in Rome, as in the United States, did not exist in the Hellenistic kingdoms, which resembled rather the autocracy of the Tsars of Russia until the beginning of the 20th-century. And besides, in fact, the good ancient parallel for Russia is Macedonia, that state on the borders of Greece, not really Greek but not really barbaric either, which established its domination over a large number of Greek cities after they had bled themselves in internal conflicts, in particular the Peloponnesian War, and whose government was despotic, unlike the Greek cities in which the oligarcho-democratic model had spread widely.
The multiethnic aspect, in Rome as in the United States, is a late phenomenon, the consequence of the constitution of a world empire which then drains a population coming from the four corners of the world, and which brings about a cosmopolitan evolution of the imperial core. That has little to do, conversely, with the Hellenistic kingdoms which, in fact, were actually Greek colonies, where the elites descended from the Greek and Macedonian invaders, and spoke Greek, but where the background of the population was indigenous: Persian, Egyptian, and so on.
As for Carthage, everything depends exactly on the role attributed to it. There is not necessarily an exact parallel. One might be tempted to see Russia there, in its Soviet and then current form. But, as I said, Russia corresponds much more literally to Macedonia. Certainly, Macedonia was Carthage’s ally against Rome during the Second Punic War, and Rome definitively got rid of those two enemies in two simultaneous wars in 146 BC, but Russia never exactly had the same role as Carthage, which was rather the western enemy of Rome, the one which it faced far away from the ancient world, the world that counted, the Hellenistic world – the one which it seized control of, before turning to the most important half of that world, so to speak.
On that level, it is rather at the American wars in the Pacific that we must look, and in particular those against Japan, and against which the war was intense but brief. Since then, the enemy has been China, which is the only real threat to the American domination of the Pacific, and has been so since the defeat of Japan: China and America have clashed directly in Korea. So, for the geopolitical role of Carthage, perhaps, one should rather speak of Japan and China. But perhaps one should add above all that the Spanish-American War of 1898, which allowed the United States to get hold of Puerto Rico, Guam and the Philippines, and which constitutes an important stage insofar as this is the first time that the United States undertook imperialist behavior, annexing territories overseas.
As for Turkey, no parallel is possible with Carthage. But, depending on how it might develop in the coming years, it could find a role similar to that of the Parthian Empire, that power in the inland, in the heart of the Eurasian island world, which was an enduring source of skirmishes for the Imperial Republic. In particular, I think that this could be the case following a collapse of Russia, which would allow Turkey to extend its hegemony over the whole of the Turkish world, up to Xinjiang, by way of all the former Soviet republics with names ending in “-stan.”
It is also a classic scheme: Prussia achieved the unity of Germany only after the diminishing of France, which had, since Richelieu, worked for the fragmentation of the Holy Empire and for French hegemony in those regions. Russia brought about the unity of the Slavic world only after the collapse of the German and Austrian empires. Thus, Turkey will not be able to bring about the unity of the Turkish world as long as the essential part of the latter is under Russian influence. A sort of pan-Turkish empire would make for a precise repetition of the Parthian Empire. And that is probably what will happen, if there is a military confrontation with Russia, because Turkey would be on the side of the victors, alongside NATO, and in the same position as Stalin in 1945.
GC: A common apprehension is that the Trump era is only a parenthesis in the sinking of contemporary America; and that with the return of Democrats, deemed inevitable in the decade to come, the march towards socialism and the geopolitical abdication will only resume in an amplified manner. You are rather confident as regards the fate of America in the 21st-century, projecting the evolution of its regime towards an authoritarian Right – and the instrumentalization of the United Nations for the purpose of establishing an American world state. Could you tell us more?
PF: In reality, my opinion is rather that America is indeed moving towards socialism, but that the latter will not be accompanied by a geopolitical abdication, quite the contrary. The first thing I see looming internally is a new American Civil War. Over the course of the year, I had been invited to the monthly luncheon of a major Parisian review, on the occasion of the release of my book, Rome, From Libertarianism to Socialism. At one point the director of the review had gone around the table asking each guest (there were about thirty of us, economists, journalists, a European deputy) to talk a bit about what seemed to him most interesting in the news. Most of my counterparts mentioned Ukraine, since we were at the start of tensions with Russia after the Maidan affair.
I was the only one to tackle a story that seemed, I think, anecdotal to most of my guests since, we quickly passed over it, without comment. This was the case of the Bundy ranch, in the United States. It was an armed rebellion around the legal dispute opposing a local farmer, Cliven Bundy, to the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) over land on which he was forbidden to graze his cattle, while he claimed he had been grazing his herds there for generations. The BLM had then tried to capture the cattle while they were grazing on the disputed ground, and, faced with the opposition of local militias rallied by Bundy, who were over-armed, as can only happen in American campaigns, they brought in federal troops, equally equipped, to fight Bundy and the militias.
My opinion at the time was that this matter was significant of what would eventually happen to the whole of Middle America when the gap between it and coastal, urban America only widened further. When I observed the hysterical reactions to the election of Donald Trump, and today when I see armed militias enter the Capitol of Michigan to protest against the confinement due to the coronavirus, I think my intuition has not deceived me.
The fact is that the United States is made up of one part that is the rural, continental America and which represents three-quarters of the mand-mass, and another part that is coastal (the Eastern and Western coastal strips). The first generally votes Republican; the second generally votes Democrat. The first has slow population growth and is generally poorer, and remains essentially white, little penetrated by immigration. The coastal states are more dynamic, and where immigration is also massing.
The gap between the two Americas has been widening for fifty years, while it hardly existed during the middle of the 20th-century. It seems less and less possible to reconcile those two mentalities politically. And this gap risks ending up causing a rupture of the American constitution. Let us remember that the election of the President of the United States, through the system of the greater voters, is a territorial as much as a demographic election: The vote by state balances the result in favor of the sparsely populated states, which mainly constitute white, rural and continental America.
In the election of Donald Trump, the “popular” vote, that is to say in number of votes, was won fairly widely by Hillary Clinton, with an advance of some three million votes. It is an argument that has been repeated many times by those who said – and still say – of Trump as, “Not my President.” Those in favor of Trump, or even simply objective, nuance that position by recalling that the voting system induces a different campaign strategy, and that if the election had been through a direct suffrage, Donald Trump would undoubtedly have led a different campaign, in which case he might have won the popular vote. So that we cannot “invalidate,” even in theory, the election of Trump, according to a democratic principle.
However, that discussion still says a lot about the growing fragility of the system, because it is in the political demagogic logic to focus on the simple mass, and the rapid demographic growth of coastal states, in particular through foreign immigration, mainly from Latin America, will increasingly benefit the Democrat camp in the number of votes.
But if Trump is re-elected and still does not win the popular vote, and in ten years, let us say after a Democratic alternation, a new elected Republican wins the presidency by lacking five, or ten million votes in the country, will that advance be concentrated in three or four very densely populated democratic states? One might think, of course, that there will be a risk of secession from those states.
But I do not think it would be the most likely scenario. Because the reality is that all the high places of power in the United States are in states that vote mainly Democrat. Rather than secession, the debate will therefore focus on the abrogation of the electoral college and the election of the President of the United States by direct universal suffrage, which also goes in the direction of the growing integration of the USA, by the magnification of the federal state, in the sense of a unitary state – which is a classic mode of development of a federation.
Of course, the political system will never result in a situation in which only the Democrats win and the Republicans never win an election again. Such a situation cannot exist for more than a few elections, for the ever-losing side adapts and adopts a line which brings the chances of success back to 50/50. It is the functioning of the political market. But this will also mean that the Republican Party should strongly converge on Democrat positions, and abandon a large part of the population of rural whites who love arms and the freedom to ignore the federal state.
I think that is where the political tipping point in the United States will be, perhaps with a hundred, a thousand insurrections like Bundy’s, and probably more violent, which will serve to justify the ban on weapons. The direct election of the President of the United States will make the presidential election a plebiscite election, which will go in the direction of an imperial mutation. And that will probably go hand in hand with socialist development, the appearance of universal income in one form or another, and so on.
As for the international situation, my idea is indeed that the United States has been working, since the beginning of the 20th-century to build a world state, something that the British Empire, for example, had never done, for the latter always perceived itself as a nation among others, elevated in strategic rivalry within the European game, and saw its world empire as a necessary strategic depth, while confining itself in Europe to maintaining a balance.
But the United States has a vision of itself very close to that of Rome: It sees itself as the free nation, which should not depend on anyone. They first tried to do that by being isolated – which was the meaning of the Monroe doctrine – and after a century, having noticed that they could not just cut themselves off from the world, they realized that the only way to be free was to be the world’s master, the universal suzerain. The United States, like Rome, does not accept equals. European countries have been accustomed, by a thousand years of history, to negotiate peer to peer, to make peace, to accept compromises. Americans at war are only looking for total victory – this was also the case with Rome.
This is part of the psychological paraphernalia of such nations. And in order to install their suzerainty, they end up developing institutions at the center of which are they, and which allow them to regulate the actions of other nations, including in peacetime. And the main institution they have set up for all this is the United Nations, which in fact has the role that representative assemblies have had in the building of nation-states – they serve, everywhere, to give superior legitimacy to the most powerful of feudal lords, and to go beyond that feudal order.
The UN, de facto, transforms the nation-states into subjects, and the United States, which has its seat, into the “Prince of the Nations.” The Security Council resembles all of those councils of the Greats who continued to assemble around the monarch in the early days of the monarchy, before absolutism. The great feudal lords can make their voices heard, but deep down, the institution serves the prestige of the prince.
As for the assembly, it serves to bring to the power of the prince an additional legitimacy for certain actions, mainly actions of authority against powerful recalcitrant lords. When we speak of the reaction of the “international community,” it is exactly that – it is about explaining that the action of the prince is in the common interest and for the ends of justice, and that it is not simply a coup de force of the strongest.
But we must be careful, here. I am not saying that the United States behaves like a bully. If the monarchy was chosen in preference to the feudal system everywhere, it is because most people found an advantage in it – pacification of relations, end of private wars (that is, interstate wars. This provided increased security and general enrichment, at first. But, in a second step, it also means centralization, uniformization. The multicultural model, the idea of a village-world, is both the cause and the effect of the progressive construction of a world state, which is only the repetition, on another scale, of the same process as the national scale. And the United States behaves vis-à-vis the United Nations as kings did vis-à-vis the Estates General – if the assembly supports the king, it is very good and that strengthens it; but if it opposes him, he reserves the right to override it, since it is he who holds true sovereignty.
But for the time being, there remain large powerful lords still capable of defying the king, such as the Montmorency or the Guise in France at the end of the 16th-century. Such are China and Russia. Their weakening is logically the last step before the imperial transformation of the American government – which is already underway, when one sees the increase in the use of American laws extraterritorially to exert pressures on foreign companies and governments. That makes you irrepressibly think of how kings used their power of justice as the first instrument to impose their power on all of their provinces. Sometimes, the judiciary power was even enough to bring down great rivals of the King of France – such was the case of Charles III of Bourbon.
GC: A contemporary line of research consists in exploring the genetic foundations of the cycle of ascension and decline of civilizations, envisioned as biocultural systems (within which genes and the acquired culture permanently interact). Here, the ascent allegedly coincides with the exercise of selection pressures (from the social or natural environment) which increase “general intelligence” or lengthen “life history.” The decline looms as the dysgenic trends linked to the attenuation of the aforesaid selection pressures erodes the “biological capital.” Does such an approach shed clear and satisfactory light on the structure of the necessary events (as opposed to the contingent and random aspect of history)?
PF: That is a question that I have only known about for a few years, and I admit that I did not have time to study that subject in detail. Until about five years ago, I was ignorant of all the literature and research on that question of genetics, intelligence, modification of average intelligence, etc. Those are things that are very much ignored in France, almost clandestine. If I have learned a lot about those subjects in recent years, it is because I have had the chance to meet a friend who is well trained in this field, who knows the bibliography and the state of knowledge well. It quite quickly became evident to me, indeed, that those factors must have a very important role in the cyclical nature of history, and the mechanisms already described previously for the constitution of nation-states – that to certain stages of economic, social and political development also probably correspond the fluctuations of average intelligence.
For example, it is quite striking to note that the scientific peak in a country always occurs at the same time as its movement of national revolution. With England, it is in the second half of the 17th-century, at the time of Newton. With France, it is at the end of the 18th-century, with Lavoisier, Sadi Carnot, Condorcet. With Germany, at the start of the 20th-century, with Planck, Einstein, Haber. Of course, this does not exclude, in each of those countries, that there are also some big names before and after – but at that time they are clearly above the rest; they are the heart of the great scientific revolutions of their time.
At first glance, I therefore think that biocultural evolution, the feedback loop between social and economic construction and the genetic selection of individuals, must indeed have a considerable place in the deterministic part of history. But before I can better measure whether it is preponderant and that I may better explain what are its driving forces, I will have to take the time to really study the literature on that subject, which I have not yet been able to do.
GC: Among the great tales that have structured European (and, by extension, Western) thought, there is the Hebrew perspective, according to which humanity is walking towards an era of peace and love, in which the people of Israel, not content with having put an end to their dispersion by gathering together on the soil of the Holy Land, will see their law and their god to be recognized among all the nations of the world.
We also should mention New Testament thought, where the final day of cosmic and human history will be that of the Last Judgment, during which Jesus, back in the earthly world, will judge all the deceased, resurrected on that occasion, and also the traditionalist thought that humanity has known since ancient times, of a “caste regression, ” of sacred leaders losing power to the warrior nobility; the nobility to merchants and serfs – which then ushers in its spiritual and moral degeneration, a degeneration whose final act is our egalitarian and utilitarian world (pending the start of the next cycle of degeneration).
With the hindsight that provides an overview of universal history, what do you think of those three narratives?
PF: Indeed, the traditionalist vision is seen, precisely, as a cyclical component, since, in fact, it is a movement that has already been accomplished several times: The ancients knew it; then the castes made their great return in the Middle Ages, and the regression of the castes started again, eventually resulting in social democracy. It is probable that after the fall of the American Empire, we will again enter a kind of Middle Ages, starting with the first stage.
As for the Jewish and Christian monotheistic narratives, it is difficult to adjudicate, since they have a linear vision in the very long term and are irrefutable: As long as there are human beings and thus history continues, one can always understand that there will be a coming/return of the Messiah. It is therefore a thought which is by nature outside of science.
On the other hand, what I can say as a historian is that monotheisms have a tendency to wear out, to get tired, in about a millennium and a half. They are very conquering in their first centuries, and bring about a kind of universal empire, which gradually falls apart. Then there is a millennialist revival, and finally religion falters and shrivels up.
One saw it with Judaism, with the kingdom of David and Solomon, its division, the dispersion of the Jews, the great impulse of conversion in the Roman Empire and of fanaticism going as far as terrorism (the Zealots), the messianist uprisings, and finally the advent of rabbinic Judaism, turned in on the community, and no longer proselytic.
Likewise, with Christianity from Constantine on – the Christian Empire, its disintegration, the advent of the Reformation, and associated with a lot of fanatical outbursts, like Savonarola, the Hussites, the Anabaptists of Munster, and then a slow numbness in Europe.
The same thing is happening to Islam, which is currently in its millennialist phase: Salafism is Muslim Protestantism. One wrongly speaks of “Islamoconservatism;” even while Salafism extols the step backwards, it is in the same mode as Luther and Calvin in the 16th-century. It is not conservatism, on the contrary. And so, I think that within a century or two, Islam will have become as harmless as Judaism and Christianity. But suddenly, there will be a void to fill and one will probably see something else appear.
GC: Insisting both on the internationalist doctrine of Islamic terrorist organizations and on the anti-capitalist nature of their discourse, you see contemporary militant Islam as the equivalent – within the Arab-Islamic world – of the Marxist-Leninist ideology. Should the nationalist and revolutionary Iran of the mullahs be envisaged as the equivalent of Stalinist Russia, which vilified “cosmopolitanism?” Regarding Xi Jinping’s China, engaged in a standoff with Uighur and Kazakh Muslims, does its opening to a semi-planned capitalist model lie within the same structural pattern as the “new economic policy” of Lenin?
PF: Yes, Iran can be seen like that, but I do not believe in its ability to be effectively for the Muslim world what Stalin’s USSR was for the communist world, because the fact that Iran is Shiite is a real hindrance to the penetration of Iranian power into the Arab world, which is Sunni. The Iranians tried to overcome that obstacle by making hatred of Israel the heart of their international propaganda, but it did not work very well.
I see Erdogan’s Turkey much more capable of assuming the role of the Islamist USSR. Erdogan enormously plays the card of pan-Islamism, even more so than that of pan-Turkism, and with a fluency all the greater than Ottoman history, which seems to give a form of legitimacy to Turkish ambitions. It has, in addition, very superior means: Turkish GDP is 50% higher than that of Iran; Turkey is better integrated in international trade; and the Turkish armed forces are much better equipped. Iran has likely reached the limits of its influence by somehow bringing together all of the Shiites under its control in Syria, Lebanon, Iraq and Yemen. It collides with a glass ceiling and is maintained only by way of Russian and Chinese support. And Iran’s regime is starting to age, more than forty years after its establishment, while Erdogan’s Islamism is, I think, more dynamic.
Regarding China, it has only a few Muslims in its Eastern markets, and the problem for it is thus less acute. One can effectively compare the ideological concessions made from Deng Xiaoping to the NEP of Lenin, but I must say that, in general and except for fanatic exceptions like the Khmer Rouge, I am very reluctant when it comes to the determining aspect of ideology in the history of communism. I think that Marxism-Leninism had only very briefly a decisive role, and that the rest of the time it was mainly a rationalization for much deeper political evolutions. For example, I think that there was a real communist will in Russia, precisely and only before the NEP. I think that the mass collectivization resumed under the leadership of Stalin in the late 1920s because he needed to accumulate capital to create an industry, but above all an army, in order to conquer Europe.
That was the underlying determinism that guided his action, since Stalin was a revolutionary nationalist leader like Napoleon and Hitler. He was not overwhelmingly driven by communism, rather by the Russian expansionist drive, like French Jacobinism and German National Socialism. In China, Mao’s communism is the form taken by the Chinese equivalent of the Meiji imperial restoration in Japan – a very strong collective reaction to Western penetration, a nationalist will to rebuild and regain lost status. Structurally, is the Chinese Communist Party regime very far from the imperial regime and the administration of the Mandarins? I do not think so. In the end, the real change between the imperial regime before 1911 and that established under Mao, is that the earlier Mandarins were mainly Manchu, while the Chinese are mainly Hans, and that today the Chinese elites are mainly Han.
That is one of my main concerns throughout my works. I think that, for a century, we have given a causal role, which is also highly decisive, to ideologies, whereas they often only and ultimately embody much more primitive impulses. I should clarify. I do not believe, like Marxists, that the displayed motives are always untrue or hypocritical and that history is materialistic, and that the real causes of historical movements are economic. No, there are real fundamental reasons which are purely psychological, and nationalism is one of them; it is a real collective impulse. But when we see that Napoleon, Hitler and Stalin did pretty much the same things and pursued the same goals, even though their overt ideologies were very different, we must methodically deduce that those ideologies had no determining role and only served as window-dressing to the real underlying motive, which is similar in all cases.
GC: Let us allow ourselves a bit of alternative history after historionomy. It is well known that 8th-century Europe almost fell under the yoke of the Umayyad Caliphate, and that Christianity then owed its triumph over the Islamic invader by way of various military victories, including the battle of Poitiers which stayed famous for Christian Europe.
A more overlooked fact is that the Hellenized Judaism of the time of Jesus had constituted itself as a universal religion, which was turned towards a peaceful and philosophical proselytism, notwithstanding the Zealot revolts, intended to precipitate the universal reign of peace and of the mosaic law by liberating Judea. And that Christianity and Judaism during the first centuries of the common era would be veritably in competition for the conquest of Pagan minds, most of the inhabitants of the empire (in default to actually converting) were “judaizing,” in that they were assimilating Jewish practices such as Shabbat. From the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem to the abolition of the Jewish Patriarchate of Palestine, through the conversion of Constantine, Judaism would obviously be marginalized and discredited for the benefit of its own offspring.
Had it not been for the victory of Christianity under the Roman Empire. or the backflow of Islam in the 8th-century, would the fate of Europe have been significantly different today?
PF: Very precisely historionomy allows for the sorting of the possible and impossible alternative history scenarios; and I can therefore tell you the following things. First, Judaism could not compete with Christianity, for reasons that I have already mentioned on the fatigue of monotheisms. In the middle of the Second Century, Judaism had greatly exceeded the populations of the Roman Empire, by the excesses of its Zealots who nourished the same dreams as today the partisans of the Islamic State dream; and its rabbinical reform was not made to make it a religion very easy to disseminate – whereas, to the contrary, Christianity, from the Council of Jerusalem, had evacuated a whole lot of Mosaic prohibitions, in particular on circumcision and food, which made the Christian faith much easier to diffuse.
Concerning the Islamic threat, I am not convinced that Europe was really threatened with conquest – past the Pyrenees, the Umayyads were immediately stopped in Toulouse in 721; and the expeditions which led the Muslims to Tours were not conquest operations, but rather raids. Furthermore, if Islam relatively easily progressed to the Pyrenees, it is because Spain and part of the Maghreb were of Arian faith, much more compatible with the idea of a further revelation of Muhammad than was the Orthodox Christianity which prevailed in the land under Frankish domination. Let us recall that it was under the impetus of Charlemagne that the Filioque would be integrated into the creed. And, as well, this was already a century after the first impulse of Muslim conquest; and it is rare that serial conquests spread without petering out over more than a century.
The Mongol conquests extended between 1206 and 1279, the date when they reached their most distant Western point with penetration into the plains of Hungary. The essential part of the Ottoman conquests was made between 1430 and 1530. Even the entire empire of Rome outside Italy was conquered in one century and a half. So, even if the Umayyads had taken Toulouse or even Tours, it is unlikely that they would have managed to go further; and not long after their arrival they would have first needed to confront Frankish reconquest efforts, since the heart of Frankish power was in Austrasia, between Metz, Tournai and Cologne.
It is hard to believe that those who built Charlemagne’s empire in our understanding would not have been able to shake up Arab-Berbers enemies of Christ. And even if that had not been the case, it is the Vikings whom those Muslim invaders would have had to suffer under. In summary, progress beyond Aquitaine would have been very difficult, and installation in Aquitaine itself would have been complicated. So, I can accept a range of possibilities that went as far as taking Aquitaine, but not beyond that. Even less so since, when the Muslims were arrested in Aquitaine, the Reconquista had already started in Asturias.
But for the exercise, let us assume that by a remarkable accident the Muslims arrived in Saxony, seized all of Italy and converted all of Western Europe to Islam, all the way to Scotland. What would have happened?
Some events of relative magnitude would not have taken place – the Crusades against the Muslim world, in particular. But the crusades against the pagan world in the East would no doubt have taken place, and with even more vigor, under the banner of Islam.
The fact remains that Europe would have always benefited from its geographic advantages – the articulated thalassography, a geography favoring the emergence of states with stable borders. When the Muslim Empire disintegrated into a multitude of political entities during the 9th-century, this would also have been the case in Europe, as it was the case with the disintegration of the Carolingian Empire. No caliph would have succeeded in imposing his authority on Europe, given the distance of the Abbasids; and especially when one bears in mind the stormy relations between the Papacy and the Empire. It is even likely that Europe would have given itself a competing caliph.
The construction of European nation-states would therefore have been primed, as in our own time, with simply a practice of Islam – and still probably it would have been an altered practice, because it is difficult to conceive the prohibition of pork in countries where that meat has been part of the staple food since earliest antiquity. So, no, the fate of Europe would likely not have been very different. The Muslim world, if extended to Europe, would still have known a divide between the world to the north of the Pyrenees dominated by the German mentality since the Great Invasions, and the Mediterranean world – for we must not be mistaken, if Islam did not succeed in going North of the Pyrenees it is also because it was then entering another geographical, cultural, mental area, and those differences would not have been erased by religious conversion.
GC: Thank you for your time. Would you like to add a thing or two?
PF: We did not have time to talk about it, but Phoenicia was an aborted Greece, precisely because it did not benefit from a well-articulated thalassography and solid natural borders and was easily absorbed by Assyria. It is enough to look at a map of the colonization of the ancient Mediterranean to see that there was exactly the same movement of migration (Greek or Phoenician) on both sides. It is worth remembering that Phoenician culture was not less complex than Greek culture. But the Greeks benefited from being a very mountainous peninsula difficult to reach by the Persians for centuries, and therefore they were not absorbed.
The image shows the wheel of fortune (rota fortunae), from a leaf of Josephus’s Judaean War, Book VII, ca. 13th-century.
At the turn of the nineteenth-century, political thought underwent a revolution of its own. The purpose of this being not only to make sense of the obscenities that had so recently occurred in France and the colonies, but also to plan accordingly for the new order of the day.
The guise of the new order may result from intentional, consciously construed machinations, otherwise, it manifests spontaneously and by default. Imperial rule was probably most fit for antique societies one-tenth, or even one-twentieth the population size of contemporary Europe, who had a firm establishment of hierarchy and values, the basis of which was mainly religious.
But from the death of Christ to 1820, population estimates suggest a leap from 34 to 224 million in Europe’s population, while between 1820 and today that number has more than tripled; “hierarchy” and consequently “privileged society” are today met with disgust, and any position which seeks to reintroduce them is perceived as a regression to the archaic.
Following the revolutions of the late eighteenth-century, we needed to contextualize the extreme disorder present in western society, and in so doing, our best thinkers were required promptly to answer what type of order is fit and necessary for our day—given that monarchy and empire were increasingly held to be outdated orders of “yesterday.”
Said revolution in thought, though accompanied by others of differing concerns, began with François Guizot. Being, as John Stuart Mill states, the first to develop a philosophy of history, and that so soon before he would do the same, Guizot is ultimately the prime mover of this intellectual movement, to whom we must accredit all attempts to relate general histories, and this in order to approach the problem of their progression.
By the time of Guizot’s days of industry, specific histories had been written ad nauseam since as early as Herodotus, each focusing on some particular innovation or calamity, sequences of wars or natural crises. Never did we receive a synopsis of an age, a detailed iteration and interpretation of a phase in humanity’s development that was not confined to a mere decade or century.
The following essay will detail specifically the interpretations of Europe’s general history arrived at by both Guizot and Mill. Their methods of historical analysis are quite different: Guizot presented his ideas through spoken presentation, Mill in essay format; Guizot took greater care to enumerate a plethora of specific historical facts, while Mill took the liberty of using a select few historical facts to substantiate his thorough, thoughtful critiques, typically of western principles.
The two converge on the need for human progress, not its necessity. We will see, on the one hand, that progress is conditional, and can only occur when a super-natural corrective and clear system of values are present in a culture; on the other, we see that the human tendency to progress is perfectly natural and innate, that insofar as healthy society is contingent upon definite values, these values are a product of nature and therefore undergo their own evolution. Like Emperor Constantine, Guizot thought Christianity the prime vehicle for Europe’s civilization, only he was well aware of its vulnerability against an Enlightened age. Departure from the revealed religion seemed to Mill an accomplishment, and he considered any deterioration of culture as a result of this to be temporary, a bridge to a new height of civilization.
The discordancy between the two thinkers seems to illustrate perfectly an intellectual debate seen more and more frequently: naturalistic determinism versus the super-natural free-will, the idea of necessity versus that of right and wrong, the ingenuity of living cells versus the mercy of God. This debate, of course, is not the focus of either Mill or Guizot, but is rather revealed to the reader today who explores their conceptions of civilization.
In other words, it was not in the agenda of Guizot to assert the need for Christianity so that human progress may occur, nor was it Mill’s mission to assert that civilization is a purely biological process: however, Guizot’s partiality toward divine law, and Mill’s toward the laws of nature must be considered if we are to understand their ideas of human progress, for they suggest the personalities from which these ideas emerged, and are thus precursors to the ideas themselves.
Guizot’s Portrayal Of Post-Rome European History
The first and most indispensable similarity between Guizot and Mill, their philosophies of history, is the use of the word civilization. To them, it is verb, not noun—it is a coming together of once disparate and opposed phenomena: civilization, to them, is an active principle of social unification, and of man’s increasing faculties.
Mill’s criterion for civilization leans much more strongly toward unity, whether he call it “combination” or “cooperation,” at the expense of the high-mindedness of humanity, though he relinquishes culture not without due depression. Guizot, though he, too, emphasizes the essentiality of mass cohesion in the idea of civilization, rather gives the Providential unfolding of man’s “godlike qualities” a central position in his thought. In this regard, but not only in this regard, Guizot is more aristocratic than Mill, who never tires of denouncing the coteries.
In his General History of Civilization in Modern Europe, Guizot takes on the overtly complicated task of detailing the history of roughly 1,300 years over the course of fourteen lectures. In so doing, more or less insuperably, he ventures to illustrate his general thesis about civilization that is provided at the outset: “It seems to me that the first idea comprised in the word civilization… is the notion of progress, of development. It calls up within us the notion of a people advancing, of a people in a course of improvement and amelioration.”
With this, Guizot may chronicle the sequence of Modern Europe, painting, as it were, precisely this image for the listener. Modern Europe of course means Post-Ancient-Greece and Post-Roman-Empire, after Athens had flown with Icarus too near the sun, and Rome in its unguarded perplexity had been conquered by Germanic barbarians. The individualism of the Goths was for a time contra humanitas, rude and uncreative, egoistic and dimly subject to rules. How sorrowful this condition, in contrast to the melodic combination evidenced in the Greeks’ Apollonian-Dionysian aesthetics, followed by their incisive dialecticians and evocative orators.
Paying mind to this, we wonder how it is that personality climbed so high in the Grecian climate centuries before Rome’s decline, and yet stooped so low to propel the Medieval epoch? Does not this transition (i.e. decadence) prove civilization to be at least partially a process of regression? Guizot, however, makes the claim that this barbarity was the kernel, the hideous and uncertain precursor to Modern Europe, to which we are indebted for the characteristic that makes it worthwhile and great.
It was the stubbornness of the Germans, their unwillingness to succumb to any one ruling system, that brought variety to Western Civilization. The Roman nobility and the Christian Church nurtured the virtue of submissiveness in the citizenry prior to this stage, and while remnants of Romish rule remained, it is here alongside an altogether new virtue in its infancy, namely independence:
“Still, notwithstanding this alloy of brutal and stupid selfishness, there is, if we look more profoundly into the matter, something of a noble and moral character, in this taste for independence… It is the pleasure of feeling oneself a man; the sentiment of personality; of human spontaneity in its unrestricted development: “It was the rude barbarians of Germany who introduced this sentiment of personal independence, this love of individual liberty, into European civilization; it was unknown among the Romans, it was unknown in the Christian Church, it was unknown in nearly all the civilizations of antiquity.”
By this, Guizot means strictly “political,” or relational liberty. One was no longer bound to any absolute dominion, and thus Europe broke off from theocratic and municipal monism into a political pluralism, free of any singular ruling power. All was broken up, divided, though the people were not altogether unconscious; the verbal civilization process could, and in fact did prevail in this state of confused barbarism. United in spirituality, guided by their one and only God, the barbarians coalesced, the once opposed men were reconciled and christened by a common order.
The libertine and the autocratic, the gentle and the severe, seem to have shared the common need for religious communion. The assimilation and development of European Civilization, therefore, is to be regarded as the accomplishment of the Christian Church after the fall of Rome, if only she required time to gain her own independence without the Empire. This blending of religious conformity and temperamental diversity, the one affording stability and the other novelty, has, as Guizot would have it, given us a Europe that Providentially reaches for “eternal truth… [which] moves in the way God has prescribed.”
So it was, that as the various temporal powers attained to sovereignty—the boorish stagnancy of feudalism, the depraved misapplication of Christianity in worldly totalitarianism, the various monarchies throughout the Medieval period—Christian feeling meanwhile eventuated the development of western man’s consciousness, growing more refined across time, compensating for the tragic descent into unconsciousness which finalized Ancient Europe.
To understand Guizot’s use of the term civilization, one must be familiar with Providence, as he uses these words more or less interchangeably. Rather than impose a violent Grecian fate onto civilization, rendering Europe a victim of its own ἁμαρτία(hamartia), blinded by its own hand for ignoring the oracle, Guizot, being a Christian, infuses fate with compassion and intent, with the freedom to alter the future for better or worse; accordingly, God in his mercy gives fullness of life to man if he will but use his gift of freedom for faith and baptism, all while delimiting those ungodly uses of freedom indicated in the Bible. In other words, our unfolding is not set in stone, there is no predestined ruin of man: so long as a people has a sincere love for God in its heart, the Almighty will draw the minds and spirits of His children closer to Heaven.
With this deistic precedent, Guizot has about as firm a conception of the civilizational process as can be posited: As an integral component of Western Civilization, Christianity brings mankind, over the course of time, to ever higher states of culture, “nearer to God,” so to speak. The atonement achievable by aid of Christianity alone can ameliorate our eschatology (i.e. to what end civilization is directed, hellish or heavenly).
Mill’s Civilization Of Reason And Necessity
The God and the freedom of civilization are rather nonexistent in Mill’s adaption. The process seems to Mill much more fated, automatic, inevitable, deterministic. Nonetheless, Mill is a progressivist; he sees the improvement and progression of mankind as self-evident, even as necessary (and this is a crucial point on which he and Guizot are radically opposed). Guizot would probably say that civilization never had to develop towards unity and perfection, but that either man in his freedom could have diverted from the will of God, or aligned with it as has generally been done, which is evidenced by civilization’s continuation and upward progression.
Mill, on the other hand, abides by a naturalistic interpretation of human development: human nature generated Christianity to the effect of self-moralization, and once moralized, humanity began to transcend the Christian doctrine, owing to its increase in “intelligence” and “information.”
Over the years, more materials became available to man from which knowledge and wisdom could be extracted, all while “discussion” gained a prominence that former stages of civilization either forbade or were otherwise unequipped for.
In this view, a revealed religion is ultimately a testament to the ingenuity of Nature, which will cause mankind to delude itself if delusion is requisite for the first stages of progress; as for the following stages, it becomes a sign of regression, and therefore anti-natural to cling to the ideals of generations past, who were not as knowledgable or civilized as we.
Mill himself, as can be safely expected of the Père du Libéralisme, is at bottom irreligious, and in brief moments expressly anti-Christian. His presumption consists in the general supremacy of the Good over the Evil in man—in secular terms, the better over the worse—and this he attributes to the ratio de homo sapiens.
Not as spirit does man ascend to new heights of culture, but as a strange and somehow wise animal, predisposed to greater communication and conduct because Nature’s intelligence recognizes a sort of necessity in so doing.
Adhering to the voice of Nature, Mill makes it his mission to raise man’s intelligence, that all may supersede the desires and impulses through conscious self-regulation: “There is not one of the passions which by a well-regulated education may not be converted into an auxiliary of the moral principle; there is not one of the passions which may not be as fully and much more permanently gratified, by a course of virtuous conduct than by vice.”
If Mill were forced to regard anything as super-natural, a corrective to the coercive forces of nature, it would be education. Without it, he recognizes man’s innate, animalistic and immoral tendency toward disorder; but that ratio has a presence at all, is enough for him to conclude that, through the ages, man is prone to overcome his destructive dynamism in favor of common civility, to become more reasonable through education because nature gave us reason enough to progress, and to refuse education would be unreasonable.
It should be noted that Mill does not consider the most intelligent to be, for that reason, the most moral; only that those who are morally educated, no matter their intellectual fortitude, are better suited for Benthamitic actions of the “greatest good for the greatest number.”
Though Mill was confident in man’s capacity for reason, there are to be found in his essays numerous slights against upperclassmen for their cowardice, intellectual laziness, and unreason in the use of authority. To Mill, reason equalizes men, but it can also cause the lower-class to usurp the upper-class: this is what he refers to as the “transition stage” of civilization.
The “natural stage,” rather, is when those generally fittest to rule do so, while in the transition stage, the ruled by and large feel themselves better equipped to rule than those who do. A confusion in the morality and hierarchical order of a people occurs until a nouveau normal is established, whereby the unfit are divorced from ruling power and the new fittest are given that power.
That Mill devised these stages of history points to the necessity embedded in his idea of civilization, something we do not find in Guizot.
A Point of Agreement: The Dawn Of Public Opinion
Guizot never enters thoroughly into the subject of education throughout his lecture series. He may mention it in passing, but his focus is shifted primarily toward Europe’s growing diversity, the coexistence of diverse perspectives without the bloodshed that primitives would treat alien sentiments with. One issue, however, where Mill and Guizot plainly converge, is the arrival of mass society in Modernity, and the consequent sovereignty of a new despot, invisible and all-encompassing: public opinion, or opinion publique.
“It must have been observed by all that there exists a power which no law can comprise or suppress, and which, in times of need, goes even further than institutions. Call it the spirit of the age, public intelligence, opinion, or what you will, you cannot doubt its existence. In France, during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, this public opinion was more powerful than at any other epoch; and, though it was deprived of the legal means of acting upon the government, yet it acted indirectly, by the force of ideas common to the governing and the governed, by the absolute necessity under which the governing found themselves of attending to the opinions of the governed.”
Here is Mill’s description: “The triumph of democracy, or, in other words, of the government of public opinion, does not depend upon the opinion of any individual or set of individuals that it ought to triumph, but upon the natural laws of the progress of wealth, upon the diffusion of reading, and the increase of the facilities of human intercourse… He must be a poor politician who does not know, that whatever is the growing power in society will force its way into the government, by means fair or foul… Nor, if the institutions which impede the progress of democracy could be by any miracle preserved, could even they do more than render that progress a little slower. Were the Constitution of Great Britain to remain henceforth unaltered, we are not less under the dominion, becoming every day more irresistible, of public opinion.”
Note that the excerpt from Mill has by no means been cherrypicked. Indeed, he uses the phrase “public opinion” exhaustively and always under the same connotation of irresistibility (a characterization used by both Guizot and Tocqueville). This should be borne in mind as we continue to analyze the likeness of the two authors’ notions of civilization.
Mill, of course, sees the dawn of public opinion, the rule of the demos, as in accordance with the “natural laws of progress,” and so, rather than fight an unbeatable beast, treats it with the care of a passing illness—taming, as it were, the immature, uncanny and unruly democracy of his day. Though he thought it grotesque, we find no indication that he believed popular rule to be temporary; he knew it to be an unprecedented reality, and should it be a lasting one as well, he wished it to be minimally ignorant. T
o ennoble democracy, he sought to awaken the age to its transitional existence (i.e. to its turbulent, temporary condition that must eventually make way for a new order and normalcy). Always, J.S. Mill is after the general education of the people, not unlike the education given him by James Mill, in order that the demos might better combine and desist from tyranny. Opinion publique et sa force irresistible seemed only to be gaining prominence; contrary to Tocqueville, for Mill, we can only infer that public opinion marks the hideous beginning of a new order, a seed that will not flourish without the sun and water of education.
Guizot, on the other hand, sees in the demos a perversity that men from former ages would look upon with disgust—for this, we shall see, he considered a religious solution the only able remedy. He says this shortly after the French Revolution, during lecture fourteen. Nevertheless, he sees superciliousness in popular authority, a disrespect for laws and institutions that individuals or tribes could never sustain, for which smaller social uproars would soon be extinguished, but that sizable populaces can, by their sheer number, act upon with greater ease and success.
An increasing population, brought by the correspondence between developing free cities and human reproduction, gave peoples from approximately the seventeenth-century onward a sensation of collective power, culminating in 1789, when the French citizenry could not be dissuaded from its conquest of the Absolutes.
Bridging the Perspectives: From Guizot’s History to the Age of Public Opinion
To synthesize what has been said hitherto, let us contrast the beginning and endpoints of this Modern process of civilization. In the beginning, the Germanic individualism was invoked to show not merely its crudity, but what Guizot rightly claimed to be the origin of what may be Modern Europe’s greatest virtue: the promotion of individuality.
This was the state of Europe, and particularly Rome after the fall of the Empire in 476. Following the decline of imperial and monarchical rule, various systems were implemented, each district severally trying its own governmental configuration: one district might be municipal, another democratic, others theocratic, and so on.
No one system had yet proved itself ultimus, peoples were dispersed into their own distinct sectors, comprising a collection of independent nations rather than a grand, unitary Europe. This came at the close of the Medieval epoch with the rise of free cities, industry, and commerce. Here we see the blending and unification of the people, densely packed as one collective body, no longer fragmented such as they were in the pre-Modern period.
This amalgamation of the people, as thinking men ponder timorously, marks a revolution in human existence itself: the Germanic individualism is annihilated, the voices of the few become inaudible over that of the crowd. Individuality had crossed its summit, the godlike artfulness of, say, the Renaissance painters, impressive as it was, gave way to excessive conformity, group activity and mass production.
The craftsman now appears senseless and wasteful, for, through combination and cooperation with people and technology, more products can be generated at a far faster rate. The industry of the individual is now only secondarily in question (if it is even in question). It is his participation in group industry that dictates his worth.
Whether masses can excel, as individuals sometimes do, remains to be seen. Following the birth of mass society, infantile barbarism of the populace might appear in nationalism, though really it could unite under anything at all that has seized common feeling. Always it subdues the one and the few, in a tremendous way shaping the character even of personal thought, and certainly of interpersonal communication. Both authors notice the uprise of public opinion, and anybody today who seeks to understand the “spirit of the age” cannot dispense with their insight.
Collective identity, the widespread combination of individuals, and the popular rule contingent upon these are the latest developments in the process of civilization. Nobody knows whether a people can anymore achieve the grandeur of the gods, as the Athenians had done so long ago; there, men had the will and climate to create against the highest creations; nowadays, there is little creation worthy of mention and the voice of the western individual has been muzzled.
Guizot says nothing of the growing insignificance of the individual, whereas Mill details this only too acutely. For example: “The most remarkable of those consequences of advancing civilization, which the state of the world is now forcing upon the attention of thinking minds, is this: that power passes more and more from individuals, and small knots of individuals, to masses: that the importance of the masses becomes constantly greater, that of individuals less.”
Nor does he attempt to prognosticate the ensuing ebbs and flows of civilization. Where Guizot ends is precisely where Mill begins; Guizot gives to us a retrospective image of a societal metamorphosis, leaving off at the French Revolution. Making known the heroism of a misunderstood King Louis XIV, who was an international success and a template for how to fortify a nation, he speaks about the paradoxical, perplexing spirit of the Revolution: the victory in its yearning for the free intellect, the tragic ἁμαρτία (hamartia) of its “boldness.” He had neither the time nor the gall to foretell any coming developments. Mill, on the other hand, had all of the leisure and temerity necessary to generate a comprehensive philosophy of history, supportable with reference to the past and easily imposable onto the future.
More On Mass Society And The Authors’ Perspectives
Mill’s essay entitled, “Civilization” (1836) shows us the amalgamating elements in this blossoming fructus; as opposed to his uncivilized predecessors, modern man combines and cooperates with his fellows. The Germanic selfishness which so readily values itself over others transforms into a symbiotic altruism: “I help you, you help me,” replaces, “you do your thing, I’ll do mine.”
Mill posits that as men came into closer proximity with one another, they discovered that far more can be accomplished, to everyone’s benefit, if we band together and delegate specific tasks to specific people. A house can be cleaned much more quickly if one person is assigned to each floor simultaneously, than if one man alone were responsible for every floor. (But is speed conducive to art)?
Modernity, then, is marked by the relinquishment of the potentially crude, potentially artistic individual will, allowing for the development of handy, albeit less meticulous group-wills. The visions of the sculptor and the musings of the poet are ever less likely to occur; indeed, are squashed by the indomitable collective will which continues to strengthen.
The Franco-English wars, of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, and the nationalism that it cultivated in France, exemplify the growing ensemble of man; the Crusades above all reveal the newly arrived societal collaboration, here assembled in the name of a common heavenly reward. Combination and cooperation, it would seem, were first provoked by war: when civilization reached this stage—where, rather than demonize his neighbor, man would consider him, as neighbor, also an ally—this connection intensified the moment that each had a common enemy in view. War has always brought patriotism, which is a wholly codependent phenomenon; it cannot exist without a national identity, the principles that constitute it, or outsiders and enemies.
This congealment of the individual and collective-will is integral to Mill’s theory; in Guizot’s General History, group correspondence is everywhere invoked, but we find nothing of the horror-show whereby the individual man becomes an instrument of the collective, which Mill unambiguously provides.
If we should analogize their fundamental messages, our best comparison is this: on the one hand, Guizot posits that civilization is the sequence containing “the progress of society” and “the progress of individuals,” while Mill affects a similar image: his civilization points to increasing “combination” and “cooperation,” along with increasing “knowledge” and “discussion.” On both counts, we are led to the same understanding: civilization is the innovation of what is internal and external to the existing man. If Mill consciously built off of Guizot’s idea of progress, we ought to applaud him for his subtle, almost undetectable alteration of terminology.
There is, however, a fundamental disagreement between them on the conditions of man’s inner and outer development. Guizot deems individual and societal progress basically combined and inseparable: the external conditions of man could never improve without a reciprocal change of the inner man and vice versa.
Mill, however, has no problem with the idea that progress could occur within a people without men severally and positively becoming greater persons. To show this, he has littered many an essay with bitter remarks about the uneducated—the needlessly uneducated—and has devoted entire essays to this subject. We cannot fail to share a certain distaste for the lazy-minded, would-be and could-be intellects, and especially those untrained in common sense. Mill protested against speed-readers and careless-writers. Like Thoreau, he detested mainstream media, and therefore anyone who had no sentiment to speak of other than those offered by “Harper & Brothers” and “Redding & Co.”
In passing, let us attest to the fact that Mill picked up on the internal-external distinction inherent in civilization during his reading of Guizot; but what is more important is the clash between the authors’ principles, made apparent by the loving hostility of Mill’s pen. (NB: Mill revered Guizot for his contribution of general history; he despised him for his later affiliation with the July Monarchy).
That clash is this: between Combination and Christianity; or rather, between the postulate that the two have a synergy which renders their attachment superior to their detachment, and the conflicting postulate that Combination need not the crutch of Christianity in order to occur, however true it may be that the latter served an important anthropological function for archaic man, and thus for his posterity as well. Guizot sides with the first position—that “an intellectual union is the only true society”—and Mill with the second, perhaps out of an especial fondness for the Germanic individualism.
Does Civilization Need God?
Despite Guizot’s appetite for variety in character, there is a certain issue regarding which he sees a need for homogeneity. Mill, conversely, loves diversity unconditionally, conceding no ground to any antiquae fidei as an incontrovertible, healthy conviction fitted for all men. Simply put, Guizot sees Christianity as the foundation, the meeting ground by virtue of which all classes and temperaments of men may not only cooperate, but also connect with one another: civilization only occurs when a population can agree on this, as the barbarians slowly but surely did.
Mill, in his ardent will to truth, refuses to accept this notion, considering the traditional dogma to be simply an accessory to civilization, even a valuable one, but by no means a condition of it; it should not be considered absolutely true, and even less should the individual be compelled to lay his soul into the arms of religious ideology against his will.
Insofar as Guizot was idolized by Mill for being the first to attempt a general history of Europe, we also find Mill tense and regretful on his behalf. As aforesaid, Guizot’s alliance with Louis Philippe found no support from Mill, but rather outspoken hostility; the basis of his frustration is of course to be explained by their politics. This does not explain Mill’s regret, however. For all of Guizot’s industry, his innovation of philosophy and exacting historical research, Mill could not deceive himself concerning what he considered to be definite cognitive errors in Guizot, whose roots are to be found in his faulty convictions.
The following quotation is Guizot’s, though it has been included by Mill in his essay, “Guizot’s Lectures on European Civilization.” The quote below the following is Mill’s response to Guizot, who says: “[Guizot]: ‘Community of sentiment, community of belief—whatsoever the sentiment or belief may be—constitute the basis of a social state. It is only upon the truth, or what men conceive to be the truth, that they can ground a society. It has been truly said that there is no society but between minds, in other words, that an intellectual union is the only true society, and the basis of all others; or, what is the same thing, men cannot act together unless they have a clearly understood end in view; and they cannot live together unless they all partake of one and the same feeling, arising from one or more facts, so that the single fact, or if there be many, each of them, may be agreed upon as truth by all. As there is but one universal truth, so a society which has that truth for its basis must be one. There cannot be two spiritual societies. This is the abstract notion of the Church Unity. But how can men’s minds be united in the truth, unless they themselves recognize it as truth? This was sadly overlooked by Christians at all times.’”
The person before and after conversion are not the same; the after-person, it is commonly reported, achieves feelings of clarity and wholeness: before, one was a stranger in an arbitrary, chance universe, knowing not what this life is about, where it comes from or where it leads, and so life itself was a senseless burden.
Following conversion, however, order and love are restored, there are now definite right and wrong ways of thinking and acting, there is a definite goal (i.e. Heaven) and one has all his life to work toward it. Suffering is no longer unnecessary, but explainable by God’s will, full trust and devotion to which make holy.
For all of the arguments against religion being too dogmatic and anti-intellectual, Guizot knew, like James, that the religious faith carries vast implications for the lived experience of individuals, which consequently affects their culture as well: according to Guizot, when the people of a nation share devotion to “one universal truth,” then character, camaraderie, and love are afforded that nation.
Here is Mill’s response to Guizot from the same essay: “Were it not for a few of the concluding lines, the passage just quoted might be supposed to be from the pen of the most mystical and puzzle-headed divine on this side of the Channel. What could M. Guizot mean by the assertion that ‘an intellectual union is the only true society’; that ‘men cannot live together unless they all partake of one and the same feeling, arising from one or more facts, so that the single fact, or if there be many, each of them may be agreed upon as truth by all?’ Of what facts does he assert all this? Are they physical, political, or historical facts? Does he maintain the notion of the Church of Rome, and indeed of the Protestant churches which still cherish an essential part of its spirit—the notion that Christianity, as an historic belief, is the basis of true society? Does he forget the testimony of universal history to the fact that the social nature of man will avail itself of the merest trifles to form and maintain associations for power and defense?…. He complains that ‘in almost all Protestant countries there is something wanting—something imperfect in the organization of the intellectual society, so that the regular action of the established and ancient opinions is impeded. The rights of tradition have not been reconciled with those of liberty.’ What, in the name of wonder, are the Rights of Tradition? How is the regular action of established and ancient opinions to be encouraged by any organization, without encouraging the mischievous activity of established errors? Such indeed are the contradictory wishes of men who see the truth, but cannot make it part and parcel of their souls. This is what some men call moderation—namely, the assertion of a principle, combined with practical views and conduct in direct opposition to it… M. Guizot’s inconsistencies, admiring his works as we do, raise more of regret than anger in our heart.”
The issues of Christianity’s incontrovertibility, as well as its indispensability in the western Ethos, have proved enigmatic in the age of skepticism. Guizot, as we have established, holds Christianity to be integral to western culture and civilization, and thus not to be abrogated. Mill asserts, with a liberty of conscience even Guizot might deny, that truth prevails independently of Christianity; Truth does not need to be rooted in a theological fairytale, and society may prosper without an absolute, common truth, in an existence void of traditional mythology, doctrine, and custom. In lieu of the truthfulness hailed by religious believers, Mill offers greater optimism with regard to personal honesty, the free development of the individual with as little intervention as circumstance allows.
To understand Mill’s frustration with the Christian influence, we must consider what ordinarily characterizes the believer: a certain parlance is used, attire maybe more formal, particular habits and abstentions, a manner of checking thought from its excesses, a shared set of values with fellow Christians, and so on. The homogenizing function of Christianity causes in Mill, as it does in many a Liberal under his wing, a frustration which proceeds from the observation of what appears to be mental enslavement.
The specific values, appearances, norms; the sort of common-personality, shared aesthetic and mode of conduct that issue from an esteemed tradition anger the Liberal immensely, who recognizes in and of himself a sort of innocence which doctrinal institutions—the case in point being Christianity—can only serve to corrupt. Thus where Mill sees mental enslavement of the individual and popular mind, Guizot sees Love, Freedom, and Truth Itself.
Again, the philosophers are fighting an extant battle: the a priori Christian Truth versus the a posteriori, empirical approach of science. Guizot’s Truth is concentrated before phenomena, while Mill’s places greater trust in what is bound by space and time.
The divide between the Christian and the scientific mindset has serious implications for the trajectory of civilization: how do these opposing postures toward Truth affect Combination and Cooperation? Does a people combine and cooperate more readily with or without the commonly assumed truthfulness of the Gospels? Is the spirit of man shackled and stunted by the antiquae fidei, or is it rather indebted to this for the heights it has attained, and for those it has yet to reach?
Guizot’s Christian-Combination possesses a logic which Mill’s more plain-Combination lacks; to keep from forming a tradition, Mill refrains from establishing what it is that a people combines under, for he cannot be sure himself. He does not promulgate civilization “in the name of”—only civilization.
In contradistinction, Guizot is unafraid to say that it is in the service of God that people join together and help one another to live fully, that the Father who gave us life calls for our return to Him, which means keeping the Good in heart and abolishing the Evil wherever it stands, working with men rather than against them, sacrificing what is base and overly selfish in oneself to serve a greater truth than is accessible to the unchecked individual.
A case could be made that religion is the only factor that separates Mill’s and Guizot’s theses about civilization. Most everything is in agreement—the internal-external progress of the existing man is kept in both of their formulations. The capacity of the Church and Christianity for civilization at the outset (immediately following the fall of Rome) is presented by both philosophers, but at a certain “stage of development,” Mill thinks it well to rid of the training wheels. After de omnibus dubitandum had been declared, when Socratic questioning and scientism had arrested the Zeitgeist, the tendency to remain skeptical about religious faiths became ever commoner, hence Mill’s antipathy toward pre-rational assertions and assumptions.
If Guizot encountered skeptics in his day, their doubtfulness being very destructive to myth and religion, he certainly was not fazed: he was a trusting Christian man, and his understanding was that a nation of trusting Christian men, or men who trust whatever their national religion happens to be, bodes much better than a people who have fallen from their God, or who have no God at all in their culture. Thus Guizot’s viewpoint says that once religion is removed from a people, so is the upwardness of civilization, and so, as nothing that lives is motionless, society begins to regress. That is, civilization cannot occur without God.
Mill, however, does not touch on God, Providence, or any seasoned vocabulary, but rather remains maintains his realism. We as humans consider some things good, others bad, and Mill’s civilization progresses toward the good because the bad is dangerous, terrible, and confusing. The living man cannot withstand the “bad,” that which worsens the human experience, because he is self-conscious, and so he naturally does all within his power to deviate from the bad, for to be conscious of one’s own pain is an awful thing.
The “Illness” Of The Ancient Doctrines And Our Recovery: A Struggle For New Prejudices
One need only look at the table of contents in Guizot’s book to see that “the progress of the human mind [is] purely theological.” Mill sees the decline of religiosity, as visible in the nineteenth century as it is today, as something to be celebrated, a height of civilization hitherto unmatched.
However, he is not strictly Cartesian down to the atom, aware that too penetrating a doubtfulness can atomize a people and lead to catastrophe: “Now, it is self-evident that no fixed opinions have yet generally established themselves in the place of those which we have abandoned; that no new doctrines, philosophical or social, as yet command, or appear likely soon to command, an assent at all comparable in unanimity to that which the ancient doctrines could boast of while they continued in vogue. So long as this intellectual anarchy shall endure, we may be warranted in believing that we are in a fair way to become wiser than our forefathers; but it would be premature to affirm that we are already wiser. We have not yet advanced beyond the unsettled state, in which the mind is, when it has recently found itself out in a grievous error, and has not yet satisfied itself of the truth. The men of the present day rather incline to an opinion than embrace it; few, except the very penetrating, or the very presumptuous, have full confidence in their own convictions. This is not a state of health, but, at the best, of convalescence. It is a necessary stage in the progress of civilization, but it is attended with numerous evils; as one part of a road may be rougher or more dangerous than another, although every step brings the traveler nearer to his desired end.”
In light of Mill’s theory of progress, whatever regressions issue from the dissolution of the “ancient doctrines” are akin to the flu-like symptoms that often follow inoculation. The unsettled, uncertain attitude that grips the populus is transitory, and the multitude will strengthen through the struggle for shape. The Old Ways were illness: today we endure the convalescence, the recovery from that illness, the rougher part of the road, suffering the austere cravings that arise within us.
Anybody with an ear for prophesy cannot fail to contemplate the bottommost three lines of the above passage: Mill knows the “desired end,” he knows what helps and what hinders its attainment. All that Guizot cherishes, the hierarchical order, the religio et ecclesia, monarchy as the image of divine authority rightly applied to the State: all of it comprises Mill’s vision of decadence. Those decadent expressions of authority were flattened, producing a democratic, atheistic (or else New-Age spiritual), egalitarian-type society which has a difficult time of forming new prejudices and norms.
Mill is prejudicial and pro-prejudice; as he put it: “A person may be without a single prejudice, and yet utterly unfit for every purpose in nature. To have erroneous convictions is one evil; but to have no strong or deep-rooted convictions at all, is an enormous one.”
The prejudices of old, then, he merely considered incorrect, not because they were prejudicial, but because they were mysteriously generated and imposed by the upper echelons of Europe’s society, otherwise by parents and educators. Revelation occurred to the spirit of someone other than he to whom it is prescribed; Mill’s philosophy advocates the personal selection of values and prejudices, as opposed to the top-down imposition of them. The individual may abide by his own unique spiritual doctrine insofar as it does not interrupt the survival or satisfaction of other living beings.
Can we expect each individual to contrive his own moral code? Supposing that they do, how can we be sure that what satisfies the doctrine of one individual will not breach or rupture the doctrine of another? Can there be any standards for behavior without a common religion?
Though the ancient doctrines have suffered a loss in votaries, new ones emerge from the collective in their place, whether or not they be rooted in scripture. It is left to the observer to parse out the newest commandments: What are the new prejudices of the Modern demos? Has it a heart or conscience? Will it not “shun us like impure beings?”
The prophetic Mill has confidence in the capacity of the demos to progress, but the thought of the opposite is never really treated: Christianity professes the notorious Day of Judgement, and this is enough for us to consider whether it is not possible for us, as peoples and as individuals, to commit some irreparable wrong that might earn hellfire for the heavens and earth which are now (2 Peter 3:7).
Conclusion: Civilization Refuted Or Redeemed?
We hear of mandatory ideological trainings being instituted in the universities; even more, we hear that the western political climate is polarized. Given the current strides toward multiculturalism and inclusion, it is safe to say that Europe and her daughter America have, to a considerable extent, abandoned Guizot’s principle of national devotion to one universal truth; each country and state is its own religious stew, sheltering people of various cultures from all over the globe.
Christianity remains central to the lives of a great many people, but relatively few consider it integral to western civilization: a growing many, and especially the young, set it aside every other religion, admitting no greater devotion to it than to this or the other religious heritage.
This seems to have followed from the conclusion that there is no one universal truth for everybody: “Each culture has its own truth, which is universal only to everyone in the culture, and so let the cultures worship their truths in their own ways within the limits of their own societies.” Thus the public opinion of today seems to speak.
We have explored the general history of Europe offered by Guizot, and the essence of that history given by Mill. The Roman Empire fell; an individualism, none too refined, soon prevailed; the ecclesia elevated the minds of the barbarians, spiritual and temporal existence were given their own rights and regulations; men, becoming more sophisticated in thought, tried to bring order to the social world, extolling whichever authorities they thought fittest for governance; initially, none of these authorities prevailed over the others, none availed themselves of national governance, until monarchies began to reign supreme in the Medieval epoch; the French monarchy was torn asunder by the collective dream of a democracy, the achievement of which would render, in theory, each citizen equally elevated and powerful in his reason; Guizot abandons his task here, at the latest, greatest historical shift before his lecture series in 1800 (the French Revolution); Mill agrees with Guizot’s account of the history, but denies the essentiality of the ancient doctrines and of civilization’s Providential unfolding; Mill projects into the future his predictions and suggestions, the best of his knowledge for how to maximize civilization’s development.
Thus we conclude: Guizot says that history alone reveals a progressive character; Mill says that history and futurity, as two categories of a single, continuous process, share in a progressive character. What was said above of their opposing standpoints regarding truth, derived a priori on the one hand and a posteriori on the other, is therefore reversed when we discuss progression of civilization as a process.
In the former case, we only learned that Mill is opposed to the doctrine of faith, while Guizot is an advocate. Here, we see that Mill holds civilization to be integral to man’s progressive nature—not so for Guizot: to him, civilization is Providential, a consequence of God’s mercy, which is to be given to man insofar as he exercises his free-will in servitude to the Creator. Again, we observe the naturalism in Mill’s thought, such that it is not man’s choice to progress or regress: these occur of themselves, they are in his nature, but progress generally wins over decadence, and will do so as long as his nature is not corrupted.
For Guizot, these things are not determined: it is left to the free-willing being, the child of God to decide whether the future shall present growth or decay; the free-will is connected with, if not identical to the soul, one of the most renowned super-natural concepts known to man. Civilization is choice for Guizot, and necessity for Mill.
Guizot makes the a posteriori assertion that history has proved progressive in the past because we can resort to documents, to phenomena, to confirm this. Mill’s a priori philosophy of history states that, while indeed we may infer history’s progression from the historical documentation available to us, that progression was present before the documentation ever arose, and so it will continue to bring historical developments before we can document them; that regardless of any setbacks along the way, history is fundamentally progressive, and as such will continue upward to whatever extent humanity can reach, while all setbacks are inoculative and transitory.